Mike Rials is graduating from the University of Texas at Dallas, where he was not only a psychology student but also a participant in a PTSD study testing the effectiveness of a new treatment combination.
The three-year study at the Center for BrainHealth is financed by a $3 million grant from the Department of Defense and combines counseling with magnetic stimulation of the brain to minimize irrational emotional responses. Rials doesn't know whether he received the magnetic treatment -- it was a blind study -- but through the counseling and his own will to improve, he's been on the mend.
Two days before his 2003 high school graduation, Rials decided to cast aside his enrollment at Texas Tech and enlist in the Marine Corps. College would have been a financial burden; he liked the idea of a challenge, and the war in Iraq seemed distant, almost unreal.
"There's talks of war, but it's not reality until you actually get there," he says. "You can't just go home. You see some things you don't wish anybody else would see." He's still coping with the way such things changed him.
During his first deployment in Iraq in 2004, the push to Fallujah hit him hard. He was picking up wounded buddies, loading them on trucks and hoping they pulled through. He had signed up for infantry, meaning if there's a place to deploy, as a trained fighter, you deploy. You fight. You try to stay alive.
Rials' closest call came during his third deployment. It was September 2007 in Afghanistan, and an IED exploded beneath his military vehicle, turning a routine ride into a fiery and chaotic struggle for survival. Rials and a few others tried to save one of their men who was badly burned and unable to move from the backseat. He suffered internal bleeding and died on the helicopter.
Rials suffered second-degree burns on his arms, but most of his injuries were physically invisible. After he returned home, two soldiers he knew committed suicide and others ended up in jail. It was difficult to admit that he too was hurting after years pushing emotion aside as part of survival. But Rials knew he wasn't the same; he was numb, removed, and, for a while, couldn't crawl out of it.
Talking about his experience, Rials is stoic and stone-faced. He'll answer just about anything, but his strong eyes and serious expression never crack. He's very present; he's also very driven.
"I wanted more for myself," he says.
He chose to study psychology at UTD because the school was close to home and he could learn what was going on in his head, "understanding it and respecting it," he says. He worked to acknowledge what he'd been through and give it meaning, rather than suppressing it and allowing it to crawl out in nightmares and irrational survivalist fears. "It did happen and you can't change it, can't go back," he says.
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"If I have a Marine calling me and thinking about committing suicide and I don't have the answers, and sit there and tell him to go get help when I'm not getting help, that's hypocritical of me."
As part of the PTSD study, Rials participated in Cognitive Processing Therapy, behavioral training to process thoughts and develop ways to cope, and Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, a magnetic treatment used for various mental disorders. UTD is continuing to enroll participants and is also conducting a study on Traumatic Brain Injury.
He graduated in three years with a major in psychology. After graduation next month, he'll begin working full time with the school's Center for BrainHealth, helping with the two studies and recruiting participants.
"Looking back from 2008 until now, [I have] purpose in life again, I have a job, I'm graduating school ..." Rials says. "Compared to where I was, I'm so fortunate for what I've been through, to give it meaning, to make it part of me, and to even spread the word."