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UTANG guest speaker offers personal insight on PTSD, overcoming fears

Retired Marine Cpl. Kenneth Toone shares his
post-traumatic stress disorder story with members of the Utah Air National
Guard during the seventh annual Interfaith Devotional held at the Roland R. Wright
Air National Guard Base on Jan. 10, 2016. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Annie Edwards/Released)

Retired Marine Cpl. Kenneth Toone shares his post-traumatic stress disorder story with members of the Utah Air National Guard during the seventh annual Interfaith Devotional held at the Roland R. Wright Air National Guard Base on Jan. 10, 2016. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Annie Edwards/Released)

Salt Lake City -- The 151st Air Refueling Wing hosted its seventh annual Interfaith Devotional at the Roland R. Wright Air National Guard Base dining facility on Jan. 10, 2016, featuring retired Marine Cpl. Kenneth Toone as guest speaker.

During his speech, Toone described a traumatic experience he had while deployed to Iraq in 2003 in which he and his fellow Marines mistakenly killed and wounded several Iraqi civilians who while trying to drive away from the chaos that was raging in their city were caught in the midst of a firefight between Toone's Fox Company and the Iraqi Army.

"I was not prepared to deal with the emotions that resulted from that day," said Toone. "I often wondered who those people were, what happened to them, and if they survived to get the medical help they so desperately needed."

Toone went on to describe his subsequent battle with post-traumatic stress disorder following his deployment. He turned to drugs and alcohol and other self-harming behaviors to numb the pain and quiet the fears, he said, and eventually he lost his marriage, his home, his friendships, and his job.

"For years, feelings of guilt and shame welled inside of me," said Toone. "I would often, and sometimes still do, have nightmares where I would shoot a car coming towards me and have it be my own family inside." 

Then in 2012, nearly ten years after his deployment, Toone received a phone call from a fellow Marine which gave him an opportunity for some peace of mind. The Marine told him he had managed to track down the family Toone and his team shot at in Baghdad nearly 10 years earlier, and was offering Toone a chance to meet them face to face.

"I had been part of a group that had killed the father and two sons of this family and also wounded the daughter," said Toone. "Fear overwhelmed me."

But after six months of deliberating, and with some newly found confidence gained during a warrior's retreat, Toone accompanied two other Marines to California where he met the family in person. The mother and daughter who survived that day so many years ago opened their hearts to Toone, he said, and toward the end of the visit the two ultimately gave him the forgiveness he could not give himself.

Toone still suffers from PTSD and he said overcoming his fears is a daily process, but he credits that encounter and his faith for getting him through.

"I know that once I felt that first twinge of forgiveness and of Jesus' love pouring out of a mother who's had every right to hate me I was able to start to feel the seeds of faith beginning to grow inside of me again," he said.

According to Lt. Col. Bruce Brewer, 151st Air Refueling Wing Chaplain, the spiritual resiliency Toone displays is common among veterans returning from war, particularly those who suffer from some kind of moral injury.

"During my chaplaincy, I've been blessed to better understand the unique role faith plays in the actual healing process," said Brewer. "I've gained insights into the principles of spiritual resiliency, regrets, shame, mercy, forgiveness and love -- and how veterans have used them in aiding their own recovery from injuries that are extremely isolating, making one feel as if they weren't a good person or that if anybody ever figured that out they'd never be loved again." 

For Toone, attending church, praying, and reading scriptures helped him to kick his unhealthy addictions, he said, and perhaps best of all he was able to marry his best friend.

"If you or someone you know if suffering from PTSD, I recommend calling the Salt Lake Vet Center at 801-266-1499," said Brewer. "They do anonymous support for veterans and it's completely confidential."