by Chunxiang Jin. This article originally appeared in the World Journal. To read the original article in Chinese, click here.
Cheryl “Honey” Dupris has multiple identities. She is a strong woman, a Native American, a paratrooper, and an Iraq war and Afghanistan war veteran who suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
However, Honey is not the typical PTSD sufferer. She embraces the illness, bravely speaks out about her feelings, and works to enjoy every moment in life. If you talk and hang out with her, you would not even realize that she is a victim of PTSD. Instead, you would notice her vivacious laughter and squeals at a party, her unique fist bump with strangers, and her exquisite taste and love of Petite Sirah, a variety of wine, which played an important role in saving her from committing suicide.
PTSD traumatizes people in different ways. For Native American veterans in particular, the trauma they deal with is often multiplied because of the PTSD their community has experienced across generations, both within Indian country and from serving in the U.S. wars abroad. But Honey would not accept defeat and rose above the challenges.
Honey was diagnosed with PTSD after her Afghanistan deployment in 2007, and as a Native American distrustful of mainstream medicine, she eventually found effective treatment through traditional Chinese medicine.
Cheryl Dupris received the nickname “Honey” in the military. She could never remember everyone’s name, so she would call them all “Honey” instead. In return, they started calling her “Honey.”
Honey grew up in South Dakota where all the men in her family were in the military. She began her journey joining the army in 1977, then attended jump school in 1986 and had her first jump at the age of 32. “Everybody there told me I was too old. I almost quit, but I made every requirement they wanted.”
She came off from active duty in 1996 after the Gulf War and continued to serve in the New York Army National Guard from 1997 to 2002, then transferred to the Individual Ready Reserve in 2002.
Honey seriously thought about ending her life when she was stationed in Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan, Honey’s job was to train her Afghan counterpart to learn how to resolve issues that were similar to her job. When she worked at her counterpart’s office she had to walk past the trainee bathroom. This is where her nightmare began.
There was a wall between the American and Afghanistan camps. Every day Honey walked from her camp to the Afghan office, she had to pass by the bathroom on the Afghan side and would be reminded by the sounds she heard emanating from the bathroom every Thursday night, “They were raping the young boys who they recruited to become soldiers,” she said.
Why Thursday night? Honey learned that Friday is prayer day in Afghanistan culture. Every misdeed committed during the week before would then be forgiven. “So they rape the boys on Thursdays and be forgiven on Fridays.”
What was even worse was that when she addressed this to the American chain of command, they simply laughed and said, “That’s just what they do. There’s nothing we can do.” According to an NPR talk, a 2018 U.S. government report found that the American military had ignored the child sexual abuse for years. In fact, they were instructed to ignore and tolerate the sexual abuse of boys by Afghan military leaders.
Honey was among those American soldiers who were told to withhold from speaking out against these horrendous acts of violence. She was completely shaken by this experience. NPR News and other media reported that most Afghans are also appalled by this kind of behavior.
When she walked by recruits, she always immediately noticed the young recruits who were holding hands with an older Afghanistan instructor. The boys looked at her, their eyes imploring, “You know what’s happening. Save me, save me…” Her heart ached.
She recalled that her maternal instinct was to protect them, “but I couldn’t do anything.” The guilt was one of the first symptoms of her PTSD.
Luckily, at the end of her deployment in 2007, she was invited to a trip in Wine Country in Napa Valley, California by the organization “Petite Sirah I Love You” (PS I Love You). Her suicidal plan began to fall apart after this trip.
According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, about 8 out of every 100 veterans have PTSD.
After her deployment on 9/11, Honey went on to complete five deployments in warzones—she went to Iraq three times between 2003 and 2005, Afghanistan from 2006 to 2007, and lastly again to Iraq from 2008 to 2009.
In 2005, Honey was diagnosed with hypothyroidism. She weighed about 130 pounds during her deployments and kept gaining weight after she started taking the prescribed medication Levothyroxine. By 2014, she reached 180 pounds.
She retired from the US Army in 2010, and by that time, her PTSD symptoms were reaching their height.
When she came back from her deployment in Afghanistan, the most obvious physical symptom she had was having a “boiling head.” During that period of time, she constantly felt angry, and almost everyone she encountered was scared of her.
As a military mission-oriented paratrooper, she could not complete a mission as small as going to the grocery store where she could not remember buying something and would end up duplicating her purchases. In those instances and in her head, she failed to complete the mission. This constant frustration started and continued to “boil” in her head.
At the beginning, Honey did not consider her symptoms as PTSD. She merely thought this was all just a part of transitioning from military to civilian life. She tried extremely hard to unload her thoughts but realized she could not relate to the people around her. As an alternative, she sought help from Native American doctors and Chinese herbalists.
In 2012, she created her own PTSD clinic for Native American veterans, which offered a telehealth program. The program sought assistance from the University of New Mexico which agreed to provide her program with Native American medical staff. Chinese herbalists were also consulted to ensure that Honey and other veterans were receiving the right combinations of herbal remedies. This was the turning point she desperately needed. In just three months, Honey was showing extensive improvement.
Everyone including her doctors were shocked by her change and smile. They made comments such as “She’s been coming her for five years and we never saw her smile, but look at her now!”
Embracing Post-PTSD Life with Joy
Beginning in 2014, Honey started to transition into a different person. She learned to control the anger, utilizing Chinese and Native American traditional healing methods.
Twelve years after her deployment to Afghanistan, Honey both laughs and cries when she looks back at the past. Nowadays, she lives life to the fullest. She schedules all her doctor appointments and veteran meetings on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. She allows herself to relax and regroup from Friday to Monday, only committing to appointments on those days if she wants to.
After so many years of coping with PTSD related matters, she feels very thankful to have her twenty years primary care provider, Cassy Glasser. Honey says if it was not for her long relationship with her family care provider she would not have survived as well as she did. She also contributes her recovery from the physical emotional trauma to her psychiatrist Dr. Carrie Elk, Chinese herbalist Frank Lin, and many other friends around her. She remembers what Cassy told her many years ago, “You heard and saw things that we’re not aware of, so I want you to just keep talking to somebody.”
Chunxiang Jin wrote this article for the Chinese-language World Journal with the support of journalism fellowship from the Gerontological Society of America, Journalists Network on Generation and AARP.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.