EXETER — After witnessing the horrors of war during three tours of combat duty in Iraq and even more suffering while responding to emergencies as a firefighter/paramedic, Exeter Fire Lt. Stephen Holmes is now leading a new fight on the home front.
The 36-year-old Holmes is on a life-saving mission to raise awareness of mental health issues among first responders. It’s a mission that’s deeply personal as he spent 15 years battling post-traumatic stress disorder before he was able to find ways to overcome his struggles in order to heal and grow.
“We see some pretty awful stuff. We don’t give ourselves enough credit for what we go through,” Holmes insisted as he delivered his message to a group of first responders last week during a presentation hosted by the Kingston Fire Department and open to several local departments.
Holmes is at a point in his life where he’s willing to share his painful experience with anyone who will listen, but has been focused primarily on speaking to fire departments and others in public safety that have invited him in hopes of sounding the alarm on a problem that too many ignore.
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Three tours of duty in Iraq take their toll
A Sandown native, Holmes joined the Exeter Fire Department in 2011 after serving in the Marine Corps as an infantryman and squad leader. It was his experiences with death, explosions, fear and other struggles on the battlefield that left him mentally scarred and sent him on a downward spiral.
After returning from his second deployment, he said he noticed that something inside him had changed. He was depressed. He had mood swings. He was angry, paranoid and felt like he was in a constant state of fight or flight.
“There was a beast inside me that I couldn’t control,” he recalled.
But Holmes didn’t recognize his battle within himself as a problem because many of his friends were feeling the same way. “This is what it was supposed to feel like,” he said.
By the time he was deployed for the third time at age 21, Holmes was convinced that he would die in Iraq like so many others he had known, but he survived and returned home. What he didn’t realize at the time was that his personal struggles had only just begun.
He was diagnosed with PTSD at the Manchester VA Medical Center, but said he didn’t hear from the center again for five years. In the meantime, he was left to figure out how to begin living again with some help from a therapist.
Holmes married his sweetheart and decided to pursue a career in fire service. He was hired in Exeter when he was 25, but his struggle with PTSD continued.
“I didn’t know how to connect with people. I felt like I didn’t fit in here. I just kept reliving it over and over. I didn’t want to be looked at as broken so I kept it all in. I never let anyone know what I was thinking. I just felt toxic, like I was a cancer,” he said.
Holmes admitted that he hated himself and had considered taking his own life several times.
As a firefighter/paramedic, he recalled how he responded to teenage suicides and didn’t feel impacted like his peers. He was simply numb, but he hit a breaking point following an experience at the hospital where he was surrounded by people who were crying after a teenager’s suicide death and he didn’t feel it at all.
“I just felt broken and I was ashamed of myself. That was when it hit me,” he said.
When he went on another emergency call, Holmes said he no longer trusted himself or his mental capacity so he stepped away from his job to focus on his own mental health.
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Finding peace and newfound mission
As he searched for ways to deal with his struggles, he discovered the healing effects of meditation. It didn’t work at first, he said, but soon he began to realize its effectiveness, and for the first time, he felt at peace.
“My mind cleared and my thoughts disappeared and I became calm. I finally turned my fight-or-flight off. It was so profound. I felt safe for the first time in 15 years. I forgot what it was like to feel safe,” he said. “I just felt overall calmer, clearer. I finally felt like I came home.”
Meditation turned out to be a positive life-changing experience for Holmes as it made him more aware of the triggers in his life. While Holmes found meditation works for him, he stressed that what’s most important is that first responders acknowledge the difficulties of the job and find some way to take care of themselves.
“This is an incredibly tough profession and it’s going to catch up with you. It’s like thinking you’re going to walk through water and not get wet. There’s a ton of pressure put on our shoulders, especially the medics. We go to people’s homes. We see hurt people. We see dying people. To deny that it affects you, you’re just lying to yourself,” he said.
For Holmes, speaking publicly about his experience has been therapeutic, but he hopes he’s made a difference for some who may be struggling.
“I wish more people would share their story,” he said.
Kingston Fire Chief Graham Pellerin, who asked Holmes to speak, recalled how when he joined the fire service over 20 years ago it wasn’t common for members to be open and talk about their feelings. But that’s been changing over the years as a push has been made to focus more on mental health.
“We do see a lot of stuff that people don’t see and don’t want to see. Being able to talk to somebody and get that help is important,” he said.
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East Kingston Fire Chief Ed Warren, who attended the presentation, said PTSD is a much larger issue than most people think.
“Most people with PTSD don’t realize they are dealing with it. It is up to everyone – all of us – to look out for each other and help. Sometimes just being there is help,” he said, adding that it’s important to recognize that PTSD is nothing to hide from or be ashamed of.
“It’s part of you, so we need to make it part of us so we can all move forward and live better, healthier lives,” he said. “What is affecting people today is usually brought on by something that happened months or years earlier.”
Anyone experiencing a mental health crisis in New Hampshire should contact the New Hampshire Rapid Response Access Point, a 24/7 call center, by calling or texting 1-833-710-6477 or via chat at https://link.edgepilot.com/s/6ffefddd/Ftc0qUFSRk6iuUO_0H-1rg?u=http://www.nh988.com/