University City

Jennifer's war: A veteran's battle with PTSD

Jennifer Crane left her crack dealer's house at 2 a.m. Within minutes, seven narcotics officers surrounded her car.

"Every story has a beginning, middle, and end," said Crane, now 28, of the early morning wake-up call that came to her five years ago in the form of blaring sirens and flashing blue lights.

Today, a married mother living a suburban life outside Philadelphia, no one would believe she once lived as a homeless junky, except that she feels compelled to tell her story. Crane, a veteran who served in Afghanistan, travels the country speaking about her experiences with post-traumatic stress disorder.

On Tuesday, she will speak at UNC Charlotte.

For many, a drug addiction and subsequent arrest often ends with a stint in prison or eventually the morgue, but for Crane the arrest became a beginning. It was an opportunity to finally find a healthy way to snuff out the wartime horrors she couldn't escape chemical-free before.

Crane grew up in Coatesville, Pa., a steel town 40 miles southwest of Philadelphia.

When a recruiter visited her high school class during senior year, Crane saw a way to pay for college, serving one weekend a month in the Army National Guard. Within two weeks, she signed up.

But everything changed on her first day of boot camp, Sept.11, 2001, when in the blistering S.C. sun, grunting through pushups, her drill sergeant shouted that the world had changed.

"We all know these things can happen," said Crane, looking back on that day. "But when I joined, we were in peacetime, so that was the furthest from my mind."

Dropped into Afghanistan by what is called a combat landing, Crane watched soldiers sitting around her turn green as the pilot's evasive maneuvers to avoid gunfire shifted them side to side.

The next several months would plant the seeds for an eventual post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis.

"The Taliban would stand on the outsides of the cliffs and just drop bombs on us," said Crane, of the constant 2 a.m. bombings.

Old wooden trucks, their beds spilling over with dead bodies, drove into the base regularly.

The worst memories, said Crane, come from the children who were victims of mines.

The suffering began to change her.

"I started seeing these things and I just started to shut off emotionally," she said.

With no appetite, she lost 60 pounds and became severely dehydrated. Her superiors sent her back to the United States, labeling her with an eating disorder.

"By the time I came home, I didn't sleep. I was having night terrors. I shook all the time. I couldn't function in society, especially with my family," she said.

Then, an introduction to cocaine at a party dulled the horrors. It took three years as a junkie for her to spiral down into joblessness, homelessness and hopelessness.

The arrest outside her crack dealer's house led to a court-ordered drug program and then counseling for PTSD. When the counseling ended, her therapist continued seeing her through the Give an Hour organization, a free program for military personnel and their families affected by the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.

Hope's Voice, the organization that arranges Crane's speaking schedule, donates part of her speaking fee to Give an Hour at Crane's request.

Today, she manages her PTSD with medications and coping skills. Crane still has triggers, like when a helicopter flies over her house, but she knows how to calm them now.

"My hands start tingling, and I can't breathe, and the panic starts," she said. "But today I know what to do when that happens."

She tells her story so people will recognize the symptoms of PTSD. She also knows that college students suffer many of the same symptoms, like isolation, anxiety, and depression.

"I'm not there to tell them about my wartime stories," said Crane. "I'm there to tell them about the war I fought when I came home. Even if they're not a vet, it's still relevant to them."