PTSD survivor offers advice for understanding, healing

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  • AFIMSC Public Affairs

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas – June 27 is National PTSD Awareness Day, a time to talk about PTSD to better understand what it is and how people who feel they may be experiencing it can seek help. 

By shedding light on PTSD and eliminating misconceptions, an Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center officer, who shared her PTSD story, hopes more people can get the support and care they need to heal.

Maj. Ronda Underwood, chief of the Air Force Civil Engineer Center’s Expeditionary Engineering Division, began grappling with her symptoms on her own more than 10 years ago largely because of a misconception in military circles at the time that PTSD only affected combat veterans and first responders. 

She first tried to address her symptoms in 2013 with a visit to a mental health clinic but felt she didn’t get the support she needed at the time. 

“I wasn't explosive ordnance disposal or fire, and I wasn't in a combat career field,“ Underwood said. “So, I stayed quiet and suffered in silence. I worked to bury the darkness deeper and deeper in a box.”

The reality, according to the American Psychiatric Association, is PTSD can affect anyone who has experienced or witnessed a traumatic event, series of events or set of circumstances. In the military, PTSD is not owned by any one functional community or triggered by a certain type of traumatic event. It can affect a variety of people for a variety of reasons. 

“All those variations exist in the Department of Defense. It’s important to create an environment of trust; rush to listen, not to solve; and communication,” she said.

In the early part of her career, the major deployed to combat zones, and experienced events that can lead to PTSD. Her work took her all over Iraq and Afghanistan to support the Army, Marine Corps and special operations missions. 

“I went to plenty of dangerous places,” she said. “I've seen my share of the death and darkness this world has to offer.”

Soon after her deployments, she started experiencing symptoms. 

“I was having a lot of nightmares,” Underwood said. “My nightmares were of events and things I saw and experienced while deployed to Afghanistan in 2012. I was also smelling things that weren’t there like blood and what I would phrase as death. Death has a specific scent. I’ve not smelled anything like it before being in a combat zone or since.”

After struggling with PTSD symptoms on her own, Underwood eventually hit a low point and considered harming herself. 

“I worked to compartmentalize or lock up those memories and experiences. That ended up not working,” she said. 

Thanks to a senior NCO who encouraged her to do so, she sought professional help.

“Fighting how scared I was and how afraid I was of losing my career for walking through the door and being diagnosed, I tried mental health again in 2020,” she said. 

Her diagnosis was combat PTSD and she began treatment.

Despite misconceptions, seeking psychological health counseling or treatment will not automatically impact a member’s ability to obtain or maintain a security clearance, according to the Defense Health Agency. In fact, counseling can be a positive factor in eligibility determinations.

“Getting help allowed me to process a lot of memories that were bottling up in a safe environment while giving me tools to manage the memories and feelings when they came up,” she said. “It helped me learn to control my memories, the physical reactions and the emotions that went with them instead of having them control me. I was eventually able to sleep more, and the nightmares decreased. I was present in the moment more for my Airmen, friends, family and husband.” 

According to the National Center for PTSD, military deployments increase the risk of PTSD. Nearly 30 percent of veterans who served during Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom will experience PTSD at some point in their lives. 

Underwood encourages people to educate themselves about PTSD, to be patient with the understanding that mental health challenges are the emotional side of warfighting, and to create an environment of trust in their work centers.

“We are all human – regardless of the leadership level – and we are going to all handle life’s challenges in different ways,” she said. “We are going to make mistakes and we are going to have days when we are not OK. That’s OK. It’s OK, to not be OK. It’s OK to give ourselves, our leaders and those we work with a little grace, patience and understanding as we navigate the emotional side of warfighting.”

For those who may be struggling with PTSD symptoms, Underwood said help can come in many forms. She recommends finding a good support group that can be a shoulder to lean on, establishing a trusted inner circle of family or friends who will check in to make sure things are OK, reading books to better understand and manage PTSD and, when people are ready, reaching out for professional help. 

“You are not alone in your struggle and you don’t have to go it alone,” she said. “I know it’s scary to seek help. I know it’s not easy to come forward and trust people enough to share what’s going on. I know how hard it is to go through that type of treatment, but you can do it and it is worth it.

“There are others who have also been on this journey and who are willing to help you navigate this arena. Reach out. We are here to help how we can and where we are able.”

Where to get help

For more information and resources, visit