By Seth Kastle

I didn’t know what it was. I just knew it was different.

The fire that burned in my chest during an argument with my wife in 2004 is seared in my memory. I had never felt anything like that before and I still remember where I was standing in the house we used to live in.

The burning and tension that filled my chest was more than an emotion. It was a physical reaction that now impacts who I am. It took a long time for me to realize that post-traumatic stress disorder might have been the source of the angry outbursts I experienced after deploying to Afghanistan and Iraq.

PTSD is an invisible wound that expresses itself in various ways. Flashbacks, nightmares, depression, sleeplessness and self-destructive behaviors are just a few of its many symptoms. The disorder affects people differently and the symptoms can vary widely. For me, the condition caused irritability and made me short-tempered. Anger had a firm grasp on my life, but the feelings ebbed and flowed. Even now, there are times when the anger is intense just as there are times when it’s manageable. At its worst, I was operating at an eight out of 10 on a daily basis, so it didn’t take much to set me off.

After struggling with symptoms for years, I sought PTSD treatment because my marriage was on the rocks. At first, I participated in group therapy sessions at the VA in Wichita, Kansas, but they didn’t work for me. The groups were mostly Vietnam-era veterans who were at different points in their lives. They were 30 years ahead of me in the game of reintegration and had already lived through what I was experiencing. The men in those groups weren’t dealing with young children at home or building a career and everything that involves. One-on-one counseling at a local veterans’ center was what helped me most.

Admittedly, I should have sought help earlier. I waited until I was on the brink of divorce and I had to make a decision to keep my family together. I’m grateful that I had the foresight to make the right choice. I’m not a PTSD expert, but I do know that treatment has helped me and my family.

Seth Kastle, shown here picking pumpkins with his daughters, said he came home after a rough day at work and wrote “Why Is Dad So Mad?” in about 30 minutes. Photo courtesy of Seth Kastle | Photo credit Courtesy of Seth Kastle

My wife, Julia, and I have been through the ringer together and it’s still difficult sometimes. We both served in the Army and met while deployed to Qatar in 2002. We have two girls, ages 2 and 6, and even with treatment, there are rough patches. There are still times when I’m not who I want to be.

If I have an angry outburst with my children, I can look back five minutes later and know that my reaction was unnecessary. My realization doesn’t change the fact that my 6-year-old is in her room crying. That’s a tough pill to swallow as a dad. I know that it’s not OK to act that way and I want to be able to explain—not excuse—these feelings to my kids.

“Why is dad so mad?” was a question my girls probably asked themselves every time I was upset. I wanted to give them answers in a way they could understand, so I wrote a children’s book with that important question as the title.

Seeking a Solution

With two young kids at home, I was in a perfect situation to write “Why Is Dad So Mad?” In my first six years as a father, I read at least 1,000 children’s books, but I never found one that communicated the things I wanted to tell my oldest daughter. I thought a book that could explain PTSD to young military kids might do some good in the military community.

My close friend, Dr. Jamie Schwandt, was probably the first person I talked to about the idea. We grew up together, joined the Army and deployed together. Jamie, an Army Reserve captain, believed it could help a lot of military families. Initially, I was simply looking for a way to help my kids, but I quickly realized that this project could have reach beyond the Kastle family. Filling a need in the military community became the primary reason for this project. All I had to do was write.

Dr. Jamie Schwandt is a captain in the Army Reserve. | Photo credit Courtesy of Kastle Books

I’m a full-time doctoral student at Baker University and professor at Fort Hays State University in Kansas, but I don’t consider myself an avid writer. I draft reports and papers for school and work, but that’s about the extent of my experience. That didn’t matter for this assignment because my story was the basis of the book, and that was easy to put on paper. After a rough day at work, I came home and wrote the entire story in about 30 minutes using my family’s experiences as the foundation. The story was ready, but there was still a mountain of work in front of me.

I turned to Kickstarter, an online crowdfunding tool, to help make the book a reality. We needed $3,000 to illustrate, design and print “Why Is Dad So Mad?” We met our goal in just eight hours and I was stunned by the level of support. After 30 days, we doubled our initial target and less than half of the money invested came from people I knew. More than 140 contributors—most of them total strangers—believed in the idea and helped us get started.

I wanted the characters in the book to be animals so they weren’t representative of any race or ethnicity, because service members come from everywhere. The illustrator, Karissa Gonzalez-Othon, chose lions because males and females have distinguishing characteristics—it’s easy for kids to understand who the mom and dad are.

The book was released in March and a story on “NBC Nightly News” helped get the word out. Since then, we’ve heard from service members around the U.S. and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

We’ve received some incredible emails from hundreds of troops and family members from across the country. One veteran wrote about the look kids have when they understand something for the first time.

“My son had that look tonight when I read the book to him,” he wrote.

The number of Vietnam-era kids and veterans who have reached out to me also came as a surprise. A lot of them wished they had something like this when their fathers came home.

Emails from Australian troops have landed in my inbox and I’ve heard from British and Israeli soldiers, too. It’s been incredibly rewarding. I don’t know how many families the book has helped. I don’t keep count, but I know it in the thousands—but it’s still not enough. After the success of “Why Is Dad So Mad?,” Kastle Books, our new independent publishing company, used the leftover funds from our Kickstarter campaign to release a companion book in August.

“Why Is Mom So Mad?” is written from a mother’s perspective and was co-authored by my wife, a combat veteran who served two tours. While the goal of explaining PTSD to small children is the same, each book stands on its own, and we hope the second book helps military moms the way the first helped dads like me.

PTSD is complex, and nobody has cracked the code yet. While there’s no way to write a book that captures every situation, my wife and I tried to make our stories accessible to wide cross-section of veterans.

“Why Is Dad So Mad?” illustrations by Karissa Gonzalez-Othon. Courtesy of Kastle Books
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“Why Is Dad So Mad?” illustrations by Karissa Gonzalez-Othon. Courtesy of Kastle Books

“Why Is Dad So Mad?” illustrations by Karissa Gonzalez-Othon. Courtesy of Kastle Books
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“Why Is Dad So Mad?” illustrations by Karissa Gonzalez-Othon. Courtesy of Kastle Books

“Why Is Dad So Mad?” illustrations by Karissa Gonzalez-Othon. Courtesy of Kastle Books
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“Why Is Dad So Mad?” illustrations by Karissa Gonzalez-Othon. Courtesy of Kastle Books

What Comes After Why?

Others have talked about using the “Why?” format to help explain other invisible wounds, I also think it could effectively address a myriad of social issues within the military community and beyond. I’m working with Kyle Carlin, a veteran and child psychologist, on a book about anger management for kids. But our plans don’t begin and end with children’s literature.

Kastle Books is already busy working with veteran authors to publish books for children and adults, and my colleague Jamie was one of the first to join us. He grew up in foster care and has done tremendous work in that area, writing books while motivating and inspiring foster kids. His personal story is uplifting and I’m trying to help him get his message out. It’s not just because he’s a good friend, it’s because he’s a veteran. Those who served and sacrificed for their country possess valuable experiences worth sharing and they are capable of producing some amazing things.

The driving force behind Kastle Books is to help veterans tell their stories and help them succeed through writing. Words printed on a page, words I wrote for my daughters, helped my family survive some difficult times, which has been a blessing. The books aren’t a cure-all for every military family, but they might start a conversation that leads to a solution.

—Seth Kastle served as a first sergeant in the Army Reserve before he was medically retired in 2014 after 16 years of service. He teaches leadership studies at Fort Hays State University in Kansas and is a doctoral student at Baker University. This story originally appeared in the Winter 2015-2016 issue of On Patrol, the magazine of the USO.

You can send a message of support and thanks directly to service members via the USO’s Campaign to Connect. Your messages will appear on screens at USO locations around the world.