INCIRLIK AIR BASE, Turkey --
U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Keith Corcoran, Airman and Family Readiness Center superintendent, was just 20 years old when he deployed to Afghanistan in 2004 out of Hanscom Air Force Base, Massachusetts.
The Florida man served as a security forces Airman at the time.
Over the course of his deployment, Corcoran and his comrades would provide installation security, protect convoys, interact with local warlords, seize weapons caches and conduct humanitarian operations. He described his schedule as busy, with little periods of rest.
“It took a while before we actually got rest,” Corcoran said. “You just hit the ground running. It was fire hose information the moment you got off the bird, and then you went to work.”
Sometimes, whatever few opportunities there were to sleep would be interrupted by a barrage of mortars. Corcoran described these rude awakenings as alarming for the first time, but then annoying later on.
“It gets to a point where you’re not scared of the rocket attack, you’re mad because you woke up—like they interrupted your sleep,” he said.
Another close brush with death the young Airman had was during a convoy, where Corcoran and his teammates were transporting explosives to a detonation range. A local fuel truck tried to pass them, when the two vehicles collided and sent the team careening to the side of the road. Although the incident wasn’t combat-related, Corcoran said the collision—combined with the truckload of fuel and explosives—could have burst the convoy into flames.
“I could only imagine what that explosion would have been like—what a bad day,” he recalled. “It could have been really, really bad.”
Corcoran and his colleagues finished their rotation and returned to the U.S., saying although there were intense moments, nothing “too crazy” transpired. The master sergeant said he didn’t notice much stress or trauma experienced by many combat veterans.
Little did he know memories of war can emerge from the subconscious long after the battle—given the right place and time.
Years later, Corcoran found himself stationed at Kirtland Air Force Base near Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he would eventually serve at the A&FRC there. He was also married, had a family and was no longer what most people would consider a “young Airman.”
It was in the deserts of the southwestern U.S. that Afghanistan would haunt Corcoran in ways he did not expect.
“Memories fade a little bit, but you can go to certain places where the sights and smells bring those memories back,” Corcoran said. “I got stationed at Albuquerque … it looks just like Afghanistan if you take the buildings away. The mountains, the terrain, the dirt, the trees—all of it looks similar. When I got to Kirtland, it brought back old memories which I thought went away.”
One of the early red flags which arose was when Corcoran and his wife were driving down the highway in two separate vehicles; his wife was in front of him while his children rode with him.
Suddenly Corcoran’s wife took an unexpected exit, and that set off an alarm in his head. He jerked the steering wheel, floored the gas pedal, swerved into the next lane and tail-gated his wife’s vehicle.
It didn’t matter that Corcoran was in the U.S., thousands of miles away from the combat zone; as far as his body and mind were concerned, he was back in Afghanistan.
“I remember even saying out loud ‘go, go, go,’” Corcoran recalled. “My kids were in the back seat—clueless as to what their dad’s doing. When I got to a traffic light, I remember still white-knuckling the wheel; my heart’s racing and I remember thinking, ‘where is this coming from … it’s been years, why now?’”
Corcoran said he brushed off the incident as a one-time occurrence, and chose not to seek help until a similar event occurred later on.
He was on the road again, with his wife driving ahead of him and his children riding with him. Suddenly another vehicle cut his wife off, throwing Corcoran back into deployment-mode. He proceeded to chase after the offending vehicle before coming back to his senses.
“I realized, ‘hey knucklehead, you’re back in the States,’” he remembered thinking to himself. “So I was able to calm down faster. But that was it; that was my ‘ah hah’ moment. That was the second time I was driving that my kids were with me. That was the biggest thing which pushed me to get help.
“Putting your kids in jeopardy is a serious kick in the stomach,” he continued. “That’s what pushed me over the edge.”
Corcoran reached out to his friend and co-worker, Scott, who served as a Military and Family Life Counselor. He told Scott about the issues he has been having while driving.
Scott suggested two remedies: first, gather some trusted friends and reenact the incidents on a remote country road. The intent was to help him become used to such incidents happening, and equip him with coping mechanisms whenever they do occur.
Second, he should share his story during briefings, and let other people tell him their stories as well. Corcoran was already tasked with conducting briefings for troops going to and coming back from deployment, therefore he had a captive audience.
“So I started sharing that story, and how the MFLC program helps,” he said. “The next thing I know, people were coming up to me and sharing their own stories. So I swallowed my pride and asked for help.”
Over time and with continuous counseling, Corcoran became more accustomed to stressful conditions on the road. One time during a road trip, he was taking his children to an amusement park for vacation. A semi-truck was in front of him, when suddenly one of its tires exploded.
This time Corcoran didn’t panic; he didn’t chase the truck, he didn’t swerve and he didn’t act like he would have during deployment.
“I immediately thought, ‘man, I gotta tell Scott—he’s not gonna believe this,’” he remembered thinking.
Corcoran credited the MFLC program for helping him overcome his post-deployment stress, and encouraged his fellow military members to avail of this service as well. He listed the benefits of using the MFLC, including the fact that counselors aren’t allowed to take written records—and it is free.
“Don’t wait years and years like me,” he said. “These people are there for a reason—go get help when you need it. Sitting down and talking to someone, as cheesy as it sounds, is a huge help."