Annette Whittenberger spent 17 years in the US Army. After getting out, she felt lost as if her identity was ripped away from her.
Fortunately she has found ways to cope with that feeling and has even gone on to help others in similar situations.
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Scott DeLuzio: 00:03 Thanks for tuning in to the Drive On Podcast where we talk about issues affecting Veterans after they get out of the military. Before we get started, I'd like to ask a favor. If you haven't done so already, please rate and review the show on Apple podcasts. If you've already done that, thank you. These ratings help the show get discovered so it can reach a wider audience and while you're there, click the subscribe button so that you get notified of new episodes as soon as they come out. If you don't use Apple podcasts, you can visit DriveOnPodcasts.com/subscribe to find other ways of subscribing, including our email list. I'm your host, Scott DeLuzio, and now let's get on with the show.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:44 Today my guest is Army Veteran, Annette Wittenberger, who's here to talk about her time overseas, Annette spent 17 years in the Army and now helps fellow Veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder as a motivational speaker by reminding them that they're not alone. Annette, welcome to the show and why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself.
Annette Wittenberger: 01:04 Hi, thank you very much for having me on. So, I was raised in California, a small town called SUNY Valley. That's where all the fires were happening until three weeks ago, unfortunately. I was raised by my mom. My parents were divorced at six years old, so it was my mom and I and my brother and I lived in California until I was 21 and that's where I decided to go to college in Arizona. And that's when I decided to try out the ROTC program, the Reserve Officer Training Corps, because I wasn't really sure how the military was going to be for me. I was scared to enlist at 17 so I said, let me try it out in college. I told myself, I'll try it out for a few years and see where it goes. And then I met my husband and then 17 years later, it's like, what happened?
Annette Wittenberger: 01:55 And so, I enjoyed it. I ended up 17. I was given the option to retire because I did not, this is always hard for me, but I did not make the promotion list to a Lieutenant Colonel. And so, that really crushed me. I think that's when everything, all the emotions started to come in. Everything that happened to me started pouring out and it was just like all of the depression hit. It was just really a bad time. That's when it all started.
Scott DeLuzio: 02:32 So, 17 years is still a nice long career in the military. That's nothing to be ashamed about. Hats off to you for that, that is definitely an accomplishment. A lot of people don't make it nearly that long in the military. It's not an easy life to live especially with moving back and forth and all these other things that you might have to experience through the military with deployments and everything like that. It's definitely not an easy thing. Speaking of deployments, so you deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan, is that correct?
Annette Wittenberger: 03:16 Yes.
Scott DeLuzio: 03:17 Okay. Would you be able to tell us a little bit about what you did over there?
Annette Wittenberger: 03:22 Yeah, so in 2005, 2006, when I deployed to Iraq, I was a company commander for a new unit. And so that was my focus and making sure that my soldiers are trained, deploy them there, do our mission and bring them all back. Afghanistan in 08-09, I was more in charge of redeployment Ops. And so, I went there and helped out with the mission and just made sure that everything was good to go for redeploying back. But also, it was a little bit behind the scenes of seeing how our unit functioned, how they conducted their missions. It was really eye opening for me to be able to see how our soldiers lived. Not all of us get to live in a trailer. Not all of us get to live with a roof over our head. Most of them had to they live out there in the open and had to boil their water and had to have food brought up to them. It was just a completely different way of living that I never experienced. And so, it was just like, wow, I need to really stop complaining about being cold.
Annette Wittenberger: 04:40 That's a new perspective.
Scott DeLuzio: 04:42 And what was the unit's mission that you were in Iraq, you're a company commander. What was the company’s job over there?
Annette Wittenberger: 04:53 We were a brigade support battalion and I was a headquarters company, so we supported them in what they needed.
Scott DeLuzio: 04:59 Okay.
Scott DeLuzio: 05:03 So, these deployments to Iraq, to Afghanistan, you see the other side of how soldiers lived while they're deployed, like you said, some of them don't have roofs over their head. They don't have hot meals on a regular basis. They're sleeping out in the open there. They have food delivered to them every once in a while, but I have to imagine it's probably largely MREs and things along those lines. Was part of that interaction with those soldiers trying to figure out a way of boosting morale or getting them the supplies that they need a part of that type of a mission there?
Annette Wittenberger: 05:58 So, my brigade commander was really big on checking on his soldiers and I was fortunate enough to go on one of those trips with him. So, when we did FOB recons, we'd make sure we checked on them, boost their morale. So, them that there's people, as well as officers in the back, show them that we actually do care what they're doing out there and making sure that they have what they needed. So, it was just those little things that helps them know that they are being thought of and not just out there helping them protecting all of us.
Scott DeLuzio: 06:37 Yeah, absolutely. I know from my own experience, being an enlisted infantry soldier, we actually had a pretty decent base in Afghanistan in terms of the living conditions. We did have a roof over our head and we did have running water. So, we were not that far off one of the major bases. It was a more remote location where supplies still were flown in on a regular basis. And it wasn't a cushy environment, to say the least. The roofs over our head were plywood huts, basically. They were not much better than that. But it did help to know when we did get people visiting, to see what are our conditions were like and what we were going through. On occasion we'd have some of the higher up officers that would go out on a mission with us to see what we are up to and what things were going on. It did sort of help knowing that they were there and that they cared enough about what we were doing that we weren't just wasting our time there either so that was a helpful thing for us.
Scott DeLuzio: 08:06 So, you spent 17 years in the Army, did a couple of deployments and then all of a sudden you were no longer in the Army and that obviously affected you to some extent. What were some of those things that you dealt with coming out of the Army with reintegrating back into civilian life? Other things, PTSD and other anxiety issues that might have been affecting you at that point. What were some of the things that you did to help yourself reintegrate back and overcome some of those hurdles?
Annette Wittenberger: 08:48 Well, it did take a couple years because the Army tried to do a good job on that one-week class of teaching you re-integration, resume writing, all that stuff. But it just didn't help me because I think they forgot about the mental piece. It's not all about what are you going to do when you get out? Do you have a job? Do you have clothes? You have this, you have that. It's not all about that. It's about the mental piece. And I think they forgot about that. So, for me, after a couple of years of being depressed, I felt like I lost my identity and feeling like a failure because I couldn't finish 20 years. I would say that all those things aren't right or the correct way to feel now.
Annette Wittenberger: 09:35 I learned that it was okay to feel that way. So, after I was speaking to some other former soldiers and they told me that they had a hard time getting out, years before I did; I started to learn that I wasn't alone. And then that's how I started writing about it. For me, I was just journaling or writing a WordPress. It was just for me. And then, I actually liked it and I decided, you know what, I'm just going to have to put it out there because I can no longer hide it. It was eating me alive, trying to be the strong one all the time. And then occasionally having these angry outbursts, I was taken out on my kids and I was taking on everybody because they didn't understand. So, when I launched the website and thought, well crap, they are going to know now what's going on.
Annette Wittenberger: 10:34 And I had more people reading it and then I started sharing it on more than just Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. It was all over the place. And I know that some of my friends are really quiet about their life, and I even had a couple make comments like, why are you sharing all that stuff? Were you getting help? Are you getting therapy? So, I started to feel like crap, like, well, you know what? Maybe I shouldn't do this. But then I started having strangers message me through Instagram on my website, things that were like thank you. I look forward to your posts. Thank you for being so vulnerable. And I literally cried because I started to realize there were people out there who needed to hear what I had to say, even when I didn't think that I had anything to say.
Annette Wittenberger: 11:19 And that's what my mission was. It's just if I could help at least one person by sharing what I went through then it was, I guess it's all worth it at all. The struggles that I went through prepared me for now. So that's what helped me writing and talking to people. It took me 19 years to be able to say, I'm a suicide attempt to survivor. I did take the pills. I did hide in my room. I yelled at my kids for no reason. I had triggers like crazy but it's okay now. It is absolutely okay to not be okay. It's okay to feel this way but it takes time. And like I say that it wasn’t easy. As long as we can find that person who understands, that's why I think I connect with Vets that so much and even military spouses because they're like, oh my God, I feel like that too. I thought I was crazy. You're absolutely not crazy.
Scott DeLuzio: 12:19 Right?
Annette Wittenberger: 12:20 Well, this life is hard. Very hard.
Scott DeLuzio: 12:26 The thing that you're talking about in terms of losing your identity when coming out of the military, it's a common thing and a lot of people feel that because for the longest time I'm a soldier that's who you are and that's what you do. You go to work on base or wherever it is and that's who you are, what you do and everything. And it's
Scott DeLuzio: 12:59 all of a sudden gone and you're no longer that person anymore. So, then it's like, who are you? And you don't know because you have nothing to kind of just like jump right into. And it's a hard thing to do. It's actually something I've talked about several times on this podcast with other vets is that reintegration, it almost seems like people assume it's just going to be easy to reintegrate back into civilian life because at one point we all were civilians before we joined the military and so we know what civilian life is because we lived it for the first 17, 18, 20, some-odd years of their lives, they were civilians and then they spend 5, 10, 15, 20 some odd years not being a civilian.
Scott DeLuzio: 13:59 And then all of a sudden, they forgot how to go back and be that civilian. In the military everything is planned out for you. Basically, you're told what you need to do, where you need to be, what time you need to be there, what you need to bring, what clothes you need to be wearing. Everything is planned out for you and the next day after you get out of the military, none of that stuff is there. You have none of that support anymore. (None of that structure I should say.) And you now have to figure it out on your own and figuring out what you want to do for a job and what you want to do, with the rest of your life. For a lot of people, that's just a hard thing to do because they're not really used to that anymore. They've forgotten how to do that. And in some cases, they've just never learned how to do that. Think about it, like any of us, you think back to when you're 17, 18 years old,
Scott DeLuzio: 14:59 you didn't really know what you're doing with yourself. You know, like none of us really did. I think that that's common. You didn't really know how to make adult decisions even though technically you were an adult
Scott DeLuzio: 15:13 and then for the next, however long you're in the military, those decisions are basically getting made for you. To a large extent, not obviously everything and then you're thrown out into the world and you have to figure these things out on your own. So, it's probably a tremendously difficult thing to have to figure out. What were some of the things that you found helpful? Obviously you're writing, through your blog, which we will link to in the show notes and things like that but what were some of the things that helped you overcome some of the PTSD and the anxiety stresses that you’re having other than the writing and expressing yourself that was helpful?
Annette Wittenberger: 16:08 That was helpful. But eventually I had to start leaving the house. So, I did find a therapist because we all need one sometimes. And I got over the fact that I am not embarrassed anymore. I will tell you, anybody who wants to know. I talked to somebody weekly and she's awesome. And talking to other people, I started to network with more people. Once I found out that I like to write, I started to get on other, unfortunately, it's all about Facebook these days. Sometimes you find Facebook pages with groups of people that are like-hearted and like-minded. So, I started to connect with them and that's what helped me knowing that I'm going through things but there's other people that are going through them too. How can I help them?
Annette Wittenberger: 17:03 So, once I started aside, okay, you know what? I'm not afraid to say anything anymore. That's when I reached out to people. Hey, you know what? This is what I do. If you ever want to talk, I'm here. Because I totally understand and you don't realize how many people need to hear that because they private message me and say, I just saw your post on Facebook. Oh my gosh, can we talk? So, and it took time. But once you put yourself out there like that a little bit at a time, you start connecting with other people and it's like you find your own support system. I have my tribe of friends, military spouses, some soldiers, some vets, but there's also a whole other set too. They're going through the same thing too. So that's been really helpful for me for the past year and a half is connecting with people like that who want to help. You know, we all have the same mindset. We all want to help each other out and help more people out because of that stigma. It's so ugly out there. Even at the high school age. I have a high school son and my daughter's in college at those levels. We need to talk about it more. And so, it's taken me time to put myself out there, but that's what's helped because people need to hear it.
Scott DeLuzio: 18:22 Yeah, absolutely. I was actually recently listening to another podcast that was talking about the mental health landscape, for lack of better words, of younger people so that the middle school, the high school age people, maybe 13, the teenage years basically, which for everyone who was an awkward time basically like no one had a super smooth time through those teenage years. But nowadays, according to this podcast anyways, it seems like kids are having a lot harder time. The suicide rates are increasing for those age groups and other depression, other mental health issues that they might be having are cropping up during those ages. A lot of it has to do with social media and things along those lines where they're seeing everybody else's “A” game and comparing it to their normal life. Nobody's social media life is really reflective of their true life. So, it's a depressing kind of thing to be comparing to
Scott DeLuzio: 19:49 and couple that with lack of sleep because they're up all night on Instagram or you know, whatever. And that's just kind of a recipe for disaster. So, if people are listening to this and they're having issues with younger, teenagers or things like that, try taking their phones away,
Annette Wittenberger: 20:09 I have to monitor them and put a time limit on it.
Scott DeLuzio: 20:12 Yeah.
Annette Wittenberger: 20:12 I think I have one of our friends that we've known forever. She takes her son's phone at night and keeps the upstairs with hers and he can’t get it.
Scott DeLuzio: 20:22 Yeah. That's the easiest way to do it. Just take it away
Annette Wittenberger: 20:25 after 10 o'clock at night. They don't need,
Scott DeLuzio: 20:28 They should be sleeping at that point. Exactly. So, on your blog you also talked about how you were at Fort hood, about 10 years ago now during the shooting that took place there. You actually were somewhat fortunate in that you were not in the area of the shooting but you were supposed to be, is that correct?
Annette Wittenberger: 21:02 That is true. I was about to go over there to what they call the SRP site. I was going to get some stuff updated and at the last minute one of my friends was like, I need a ride home. My car's in the shop and I hesitated for a minute. I was like, I don't really want to get this done, but okay, I'll, I'll just do it tomorrow. And so, we were leaving out the gate and there was all this traffic and I was getting really irritated and I wanted to get off post. And I saw, I felt bad because then it started coming down the channels of what had happened and we were like, oh my God, there was a shooting and it was Major so-and-so. And it was just the same. Everything was on lockdown. We couldn't leave. And of course, I had kids in daycare and they couldn't leave.
Annette Wittenberger: 21:49 And I think my husband was already home and it was just insane. It was everything that had happened and just hearing the aftermath the next day after, it was just, absolutely, it was heartbreaking for everybody. But I just don't even know. It could have been me and I started to just be thankful that it wasn't. But then again, it was like, well, this is not about me anymore. This is about everybody that we just lost. And it was just absolutely insane. And sometimes I do block that part out until it's a reminder on Facebook, good old Facebook. And then I'm like, Oh my God. And it brings back all the memories back again. And then we'll just sit and just say a little prayer for all of them. And it's just insane. It's unbelievable still.
Scott DeLuzio: 22:40 Yeah, that's certainly obviously a major incident that took place, obviously affecting many, many lives. Not just the people who were injured and killed that day, but the other people who knew some of those people, friends and colleagues and things like that, who were affected. Even just being there and being that close to where all that stuff was happening could affect people too. You can certainly go down the path of the “what if” path, what if I didn't give that friend a ride, what if I decided to go into that appointment or whatever. I was reading a book recently and they said that what ifs can be very heavy. They can weigh very heavily on you and it doesn't really do you any good to
Scott DeLuzio: 23:47 “What if?” things like that because it didn't happen; you weren't there. There's nothing different you could have done from your situation. You can what if it all you want, but it's not going to change anything. And so, it's really a lesson I think a lot of us need to learn. And partially why I wanted to bring this up is because we all look back on things that we've done. I know I do. Things that have happened and play that what if game like. What if I had done this; where would I be? Would I have made the wrong decision and ended up getting in trouble or something like that? Or would I have killed somebody and that didn't need to be killed because I assumed something that was wrong or whatever. And people especially going through a traumatic incident like that tend to play that what if game and it doesn't help. I've been there quite a bit with different what if scenarios through many things that took place during my deployment. I've realized over the years that I can't keep doing that to myself, although I sometimes still tend to fall back into that.
Annette Wittenberger: 25:24 Okay.
Scott DeLuzio: 25:24 And I don't really know what the solution is to that, like how to not continue to what if it, but it really is not a helpful thing. I don't know if you have anything to add about that or anything that maybe you've gone through to kind of help yourself get over that.
Annette Wittenberger: 25:46 I was in a car accident last year, a really, really bad one with my daughter. And a lot of nurses and doctors, they don't know how we survived it. And I went through a lot of what ifs like, what if you died, what would have happened? What if I would've brought my dog with me? You know, she could have been killed, all these things and my husband had to keep reminding me but you're here, you're alive and you'll be grateful. And so, I try to do that now when I go into those, what if moments and say, you know what, thank you for letting me use you. Just thank you for giving me a reason or purpose and put me on a different path and what if I was still in the Army at that time, I would've probably had to be medically boarded because I'm still in recovery and it's just all these little things I started thinking about.
Annette Wittenberger: 26:42 It's like, okay, stop it's okay. It was meant to be and I used to hate the saying if it was meant to be or everything happens for a reason but you know what? It's true. There was a reason for all of this and so I tried to just be thankful. It's hard though because I think we're always going to have those moments. Those, what if moments, but as long as we just try to sit back and go, okay, you know what, be thankful for whatever. And I think that's what's helped me.
Scott DeLuzio: 27:16 The gratitude is certainly something to be able to help you through that. Being thankful that you're obviously still alive and that your daughter is still alive and yes maybe there were some serious injuries in an accident but you're here and you're able to continue you still have your wits about you, you're still able to function. Maybe it required some recovery time, but you're still here. You're still able to do things and the family that knows and loves you still has you here and that's, I think certainly a thing to be grateful for. I think all of us, myself included, could probably go back and look at all of these, what if moments and find something to be grateful for that came out of it, even though some of it may be completely terrible. Well, you can probably follow along a path that you got put on to from whatever that traumatic experience was and be grateful that you're in a certain position now or have met a certain person or have done a certain thing because of that experience and be grateful for that you maybe wouldn't have otherwise had.
Annette Wittenberger: 28:53 It's hard. It's going to be hard because every situation's different. But yeah, you're absolutely right.
Scott DeLuzio: 28:59 I can't oversimplify the path that you might be able to take to get to gratitude but I think in many cases you can probably figure out something to be grateful for even if it's super small, even if it doesn't outweigh whatever the negative was that came from that thing. Still finding that small thing to be grateful for helps a little bit. So, actually time kind of flies on when we start talking here, but looks like we're coming up on time here but I have one last question that I like to ask people on this show. And there's no right or wrong way to answer the question. You can answer it with a joke, you can answer it seriously or whatever. But is there anything that you wish someone would have told you, any kind of advice someone might've given you before you joined the military?
Annette Wittenberger: 30:03 Oh gosh, that's a hard one. Because I was stubborn and I did it just because I think
Annette Wittenberger: 30:15 I wish somebody probably would have told me that your life's probably going to change a lot. I was a very shy person. I was a pain in the ass to my mom, but I kept quiet and I tried to please everybody. Going through the military, I had to learn to get thick skin, to stand up for myself and that not everybody is as nice as you are sometimes. You’re going to get yelled at. And so, I think somebody should have said, your life's about to change. And I would've said, okay, at 21 years old, but it's something that I did and not all necessarily bad. I learned a lot. It made me who I am. So
Scott DeLuzio: 31:08 That's true. I don't think anybody goes into the military and comes out the same person. It definitely changes you. Like you said, it's not always a bad change there. There are sometimes good changes that come out of this. There are sometimes bad changes that between adjusting to two different things that you're going through, whatever. But you definitely will change. And I think you have to before going into the military, you have to be open and receptive to those potential changes that you might be going through. So great advice. Thank you for sharing that and sharing all of your background and things like that and what you've gone through and how you've overcome some of, some of the, uh, the hurdles that you've, you've had to go over, um, after getting out of the military. Um, I think that it's definitely going to be helpful for other people who might be going through something similar. So, thank you for sharing that. Would you be able to share a few places that people can find more information about your website or things like that?
Annette Wittenberger: 32:26 Sure. Yes. The website is called awildridecalledlife.com and same thing for Instagram and Facebook.
Scott DeLuzio: 32:37 Yeah. And so, we will have links to of those in the show notes and so people can find you there. Well thank you for being on the show. All right,
Scott DeLuzio: 32:54 Thanks for listening to the Drive On Podcasts. If you want to check out more episodes or learn more about the show, you can visit our website, DriveOnPodcast.com we're on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at DriveOnPodcasts.