Army veteran from Cary writes children’s book to explain PTSD to his young son

Veteran Mathius Carter, 40, a holds the book that he wrote to explain Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to his 5-year-old son.

Mathius Carter of Cary is a U.S. Army veteran and the father of a boy to whom he struggled to explain his invisible wounds of war.

So Carter wrote a children’s book, “Instead of Sheep: A soldier’s way of explaining PTSD to his son.”

Carter, who followed in his father’s, grandfather’s and sister’s footsteps in joining the military, did so one month before Sept. 11, 2001, when airplanes slammed into the World Trade Center, a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and the Pentagon.

Carter served in Operation Iraqi Freedom, the initial invasion of Iraq, deployed in 2003. He supported the 3rd Infantry Brigade and 101st Airborne divisions, providing communication for infantry to call for backup.

He ended his service in 2005. But what he experienced, including lung damage from toxic burn pits and a traumatic brain injury, came back home with him.

It caused him bouts of depression, anxiety, sleeplessness and nightmares, among other symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Although he has been doing the work in recent years to overcome the long-lasting effects of PTSD, he was unexpectedly triggered last year at what should have been a fun outing with his then 4-year-old son.

He was at a Chicago Wolves veterans appreciation event working as a veteran outreach coordinator for the Road Home Program, a nonprofit organization through Rush University Medical Center that helps veterans and their families with the invisible wounds of war.

His son wanted to go into the stadium to watch the special show honoring veterans. But that show included fireworks, a known trigger for many combat veterans, Carter recalled.

With his son on his shoulders, Carter stood up against the glass near the rink. As the fireworks went off, Carter recalled feeling an overwhelming sense of panic, and he turned to leave.

But his son asked him to stay, so he had to “grin and bear it.”

After the show, as he walked back into the vestibule, his boss saw that he was distraught and asked if he was OK.

He was not OK.

“I’m glad my son didn’t see me break down,” Carter said. “It was probably the worst panic attack I had in 15 years, and to do it with my son on my shoulders, that was hard. If I had one goal in my life for my son, it is to not see me break down. At the time, I thought that was a good goal.“

He said he thought it was best to keep the reality of what he experienced from his son. But after talking to his therapist, he realized that it is OK for children to know their parents have feelings, too, and sometimes they break down.

He just had to find a way to explain it that was age appropriate.

“How do you talk to anybody about the worst time in your life, but how do you talk to a 4-year-old about the worst time in your life?” Carter said.

He began writing down his feelings, and this led to his book, which was self-published in November. The book is illustrated by Nick Atchison of Glenview, a high school friend who also served in Iraq and the father of five children ages 3 to 11.

“I am very proud to be a part of something that means something to other people,” said Atchison, 40, who grew up in Cary, where he met Carter in elementary school.

Atchison’s children helped with ideas for illustrating the book, and he has used the story to help explain some things to them, as well.

Atchison, who served in the Army from 2002 through 2006, said some of the drawings were inspired by actual events he witnessed while in Iraq.

He said he did not think at first that the book was going to be much more than any other children’s book, “but the more attention it got, the more I realized it was actually something [that] could be beneficial to other people.”

He had friends who bought the book as soon as it became available. One friend told him the story brought him to tears, “and that changed the way I thought about the book,” Atchison said.

“It means more than I had originally anticipated, and I am grateful for that,” he said.

In a kid-friendly voice through a teddy bear, Carter tells a story about what it feels like to be hyper-vigilant and experience intrusive thoughts and nightmares.

The second time Carter read it with his son, his son said, “Daddy, I really like the book, but it is really sad.”

Carter said that was the first time his son realized the character in the book was him.

Carter, who also is a member of the William Chandler Peterson American Legion Post 171 in Crystal Lake and post commander for the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Crystal Lake, is working on two more books to help explain experiences of war to older children.

Carter said he owes much of his recovery to the support he received from therapists and clinicians at Rush, the Veterans Association and the Road Home Program, which led to him becoming an employee there.

Robert Dorn, vice senior commander of Post 171, said the book is “excellent.”

Carter explained to his son what it’s like to struggle with PTSD, “and this was written in an extremely clear language,” Dorn said.

The book “not only explains it to his son, it also gives you an inside look at what is going on inside his head,” Dorn said, adding that clinicians at Rush praised Carter for the book, saying that he is “on target” with how he wrote it.

Carter, who had a heart attack one month after publishing his book, said although it is easier now than it used to be, it’s still hard to talk about what he experienced at war.

Carter continues to share his story to help his son and others; he has spoken on podcasts and had book readings.

“I’m not a tough guy,” Carter said. “I’m just a normal person trying to figure out how to communicate my pain and help people.”

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