The men burned to death as Watkin helplessly watched. “You could see the flames and you could see the figures inside.”
She ordered the video feed to be taken down in the operations center, saying, “You guys don’t need to see this.” But, as the officer in charge, she continued to watch for about 10 hours, until the fire was extinguished and the charred bodies had been removed.
It turned out that “just a random Afghan driver hit the wrong part of the fuel tank and caused it to explode.”
When Watkin, 37, now a civilian intelligence worker living in Stockbridge, looks back on that incident, she sees it as the origin of the post-traumatic stress disorder that later would plague her. For a long time, she didn’t talk about it — couldn’t talk about it, even with her family and closest friends. Now, thanks to Emory University’s intensive outpatient program for veterans, she can sit in a coffee shop near her home and tell her war stories to a complete stranger.
The fact that the fatal truck fire was an accident, and not a result of enemy action, made it worse, Watkin said. “Because, as a soldier you want to know you have a fighting chance. … When I’ve had some friends who’ve died due to being shot … it’s still sad, but it’s different.
“When you die in a very helpless situation for no reason … it was really hard for me to come to terms with how that could happen.”
It was one of many wartime incidents that stuck with her, she said, but “that was probably the toughest one, ’cause that was the first death we dealt with and I was in charge and I had no experience in that realm.”
Having grown up in Nashville, she joined the Army Reserve at 18. “I love the outdoors [and] I learned to shoot when I was 11. So, the Army was the perfect fit for me.”
Watkin, then known as Tracy Colley, got intelligence training in the Reserve and, after graduating from Rhodes College in Memphis, went to work for the Army as a civilian intelligence instructor, then worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency in Washington as an analyst. She also did several active-duty tours with the Reserve, leading up to her first time in Afghanistan, in 2011-2012.
After that first time in combat, Watkin returned to Afghanistan and Iraq for two more tours as a civilian defense analyst working with special ops troops.
“I was working with a task force. It’s typically combined Delta [Force], Navy SEALs, Rangers, and their missions tend to be targeting the top terrorists in either Iraq, Afghanistan, or Syria. And I was a targeter. You help them find the network, talk them through who is connected with whom. … You have to be able to look at someone and say ‘That’s him. This is his role. He should be taken out.’”
She enjoyed the work and was proud of what they accomplished. “The team I was with took out the last of the Khorasan Group,” an al-Qaeda affiliate operating in Syria. “These aren’t your little Taliban guys walking around putting in IEDs. These are the best of the best — smart guys who are extremely tech-savvy, engineers. … I was able to be a part of taking out the kind of last important guy.
“We took out some of the baddest guys that existed, like Jihadi John, the British [ISIS extremist] that cut the Americans’ heads off.”
What was it like in Afghanistan? “It sucks,” Watkin said, laughing. “You work 16 hours a day. … Everything stinks. Everyone stinks.”
But, she said, “you get very in-depth with your mission, so that’s nice. It sucks you in completely.”
Still, she noticed that, late in her tours, the situation started to get to her more. When another death would be announced, “I would just go to my room and cry. And one my friends was like, ‘What is wrong with you?’ and I was like, ‘I can’t take this. I know the people dying are 19- and 20-year-old kids.’”
She also was frustrated that soldiers would die creating outposts that later would be abandoned. “I became very protective and motherly. And that really really bothered me. The young guys dying in vain.”
She first experienced symptoms of PTSD after her initial tour in Afghanistan. It wasn’t like in the movies, she said, where “you wake up in the middle of the night shooting your husband or punching someone.” Instead, “I didn’t like being in big crowds. I’d get impatient in stores and restaurants. Anxiety began to build and I started having to take medication for it. I became depressed, so I had to take medication for that.”
But, considering where she’d been and what she’d done, her family was accepting. “And so, I didn’t realize what my problem was for a long time.”
She noticed that, particularly when she went out drinking with friends and her inhibitions were down, “I would get really angry and snappy and mean to my friends, and I had a lot of anger and unresolved issues that I didn’t deal with. And … they were like, ’You really need to get help.’”
After living in Georgia for the first half of 2016, she had broken up with her boyfriend and moved to Indiana to help her mother in her business. Her depression worsened, and she let herself go, physically. “I was suicidal. I was in a very dark place. A lot of days I slept in late. I didn’t go out. I would watch TV for hours and hours.”
She went to the VA, which gave her more medications and provided weekly one-hour therapy sessions, but that wasn't helping. Then, through the Wounded Warrior Project, she heard about Emory University's intensive two-week outpatient program for veterans. So, she came to Atlanta this past May for a combination of individual and group therapy, staying in a hotel across the street from the university — all at no cost, thanks to Wounded Warrior and the Emory Healthcare Veterans Program.
“And my whole life changed,” Watkin said.
It was tough at first. “They make you talk about things you don’t want to talk about. … You discuss what happened over and over, literally days and days, until it doesn’t bother you. … The first time you do it, you’ll start shaking and crying. You’ll get sick. … Then you listen to yourself that night on this recorder.”
And, to deal with anxiety about everyday life, they forced her to go out into the real world with a therapist. “People with PTSD get very good at avoiding those things that remind them of a traumatic event or where they feel unsafe,” said Liza Zwiebach, Watkin’s psychologist in the Emory program. “Kyra had learned to associate things like being out in public with feeling vulnerable. She was closing herself off from the world around her, avoiding her friends. She had always been an extremely confident person, very engaged. But, when she came to us, she was very depressed, with a lot of anxiety, feeling adrift.”
Fortunately, Zwiebach said, “Kyra came in ready to work hard and take all she could from the program. She’s always been a high achiever, and she came in and applied that work ethic. You get out of it what you put in.”
Watkin said the treatment is “really powerful because it’s not just talking about it, it’s actually doing it. And, with that, you reclaim your life. You learn you can manage the anxiety. You can do things you love.”
For Watkin, a breakthrough came in a local store. “The first time I went, I was visibly shaky. I was miserable. I hated every second of it, but I did it. I was in there for almost an hour. The second time I went, I was expecting that to happen, and it didn’t. It gave me this confidence. ‘I can shop again. I can do stuff again.’ So, then, I go get my hair done, I get my nails done, I do all these things that weekend and I came in [to Emory] Monday and they were just like ‘Whoa! What happened to you?’”
“That was a real, very visible change for her, concrete proof that the treatment was working,” Zwiebach said.
The second week, Watkin said, patients are assigned certain tasks. “For me, one of the things was to finally watch ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’” the film about the mission to take out Osama bin Laden, which she had avoided because it involved a situation so close to her own.
“I had built it up in my head to be harder than it turned out being when I did it,” she said. “So, at first, I’m breathing hard — typical anxiety. Getting a little sick to my stomach and, then, once it came on, 5 minutes in, I was like, ‘This isn’t nearly as bad as I had built it up.’ So, I watched it, no problem, and I actually enjoyed it.”
She decided, “I can face any trauma, so I contacted my ex …. ready to see him again to get closure. I saw him, and he had completely changed, and I had changed, and we were both on very good paths.”
The end result? She and Army Ranger Nick Watkin, who’s stationed at Fort Benning, married not long after she’d completed her Emory treatment, and she decided to move here in June, because “I fell in love with Atlanta, fell in love with him again and … it’s been great.”
Watkin has nothing but praise for the Emory program, and said she has colleagues and loved ones she’d like to see go into it. Her hope is that more soldiers suffering from their service won’t worry about “admitting weakness,” and will see PTSD treatment as “just a training program. We do so much training in the Army; I think that should just be added to it.”
Her message to other veterans: “You know if you need help. You can wait, but it’s not going to get better and it’s not going to go away. I’ve seen some pretty bad things happen — men in their 50s who become complete alcoholics out of the blue, lose their marriage, lose their kids because there were things in their 30s they didn’t deal with.
“There really is no shame in getting help,” Watkin said, smiling. “Everyone knows you’re messed up … you’re not fooling anyone.”
Emory's veterans program is supported by the Wounded Warrior Project and is a member of its Warrior Care Network, a national network of academic medical center partners committed to connecting veterans and their families with timely, effective mental health care. As part of the network, Emory is able to offer this care to qualified veterans at no cost. For more information on the Emory Healthcare Veterans Program, visit http://emoryhealthcare.org/veterans or call 1-888-514-5345.