Ex-Marine from Pa. finds PTSD relief at shooting range
A bright afternoon, warm for November, and Darnell Rias went shooting.
Wearing a black T-shirt and desert camo fatigue pants, he loaded his firearms into his Dodge Sebring at his West Manchester Township apartment and drove to the range at the state game lands, just off Route 74, near Dillsburg.
He headed to the pistol range first; the rifle range was crowded and he had the smaller, adjacent range to himself. He walked to wooden frame 50 yards down-range and tacked up a target, a grimacing man in combat pose, two hands on a revolver, a target used by U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement.
He returned to the table at the head of the range and took his Smith & Wesson .40-caliber semi-automatic out of its case. He deftly disassembled the gun and cleaned it with gun oil, a wire brush and a dental pick. Satisfied that it was spotless, he pushed six rounds into each of his two clips.
Each clip holds 15, but the rules of the range forbid firing off 15 rounds at a time. Handguns are limited to six and rifles, three. Rias learned the hard way that that law is strictly enforced. He had previously been cited for firing five rounds at one time at the rifle range.
He assumed the position, his boot-clad feet at shoulder’s width, his weapon in a holster on his right hip. He drew, two hands on the firearm, and squeezed off six shots, one right after the other.
He holstered the weapon and walked to the target.
The man in the target wouldn’t have made past the first shot. All six bullets found the man’s head, neatly grouped.
It may seem odd that those few hours on the range provide him with an escape from his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But they do. Focusing on the target and shooting, doing something he likes and is good at takes him away and relaxes him. He packs up his S&W .40 and his M-4, purchased recently at Atlantic Tactical in New Cumberland, and heads to the range. There is something peaceful about it, he said.
It’s almost counter-intuitive, that firing a weapon, being around the constant report of rifle fire, would serve as a treatment for a disorder brought on by exposure to gunfire. But that’s the way it is.
“It’s hard to explain,” Rias said. “At the range, I know it’s coming. I know there is going to be gunfire. It’s the ones that I don’t know what’s coming that bother me, like a door slamming.”
He said he had been diagnosed with PTSD before he shipped home with a broken back and a traumatic brain injury, injuries he suffered when he drove over an IED on Oct. 8, 2010, while on patrol in Helmand Province in Afghanistan. His back still bothers him, and he can’t lift heavy objects or bend over. He gets debilitating headaches from his brain trauma.
Now discharged from the Marine Corps, he goes for treatment at the Veterans Administration Medical Center, about an hour drive away in Lebanon County. So far, he said, it’s mostly been for evaluation and testing.
He lives with PTSD every day. It’s not something that comes and goes, he said. It’s constant.
“Some days are better than others,” he said. “It’s hard to describe.”
He gets frustrated easily. He’s quick to anger. He’s hyper-sensitive to loud noises. It could be anything — bad drivers, something not going right, stress from his studies at Harrisburg Area Community College — that triggers it.
“If I have a lot of homework, or studying for a test, I’ll get frustrated fairly easily,” he said.
When that happens, he takes a break, walks around, does something, anything else.
And when he needs to really relax, he goes to the range.
The M-4 is a scary looking weapon. Its stripped-down appearance — it’s essentially a shorter, lighter version of the storied M-16 — oozes lethality. Rias said he bought it because it was what he fired in the Marines, the M-4, along with the M-16, being standard issue in the military. He was familiar with it, at home on it.
“It’s comfortable to me,” he said.
He set the weapon up on the bench, resting on its bi-pod, and pressed rounds into three magazines, three rounds each. Each magazine can hold up to 30 rounds.
The range clear, he fired, squeezing off three shots, changing magazines, firing three more times, and changing magazines once again, firing three rounds at the target 100 yards away. When the others at the range finished firing, Rias shouted, “Range cold!” and walked to his target.
Five shots in the torso, one just to the left. One was right next to another and he said, “Almost keyholed it.”
He stepped back from the target and said, “It feels good.”