Army surgeon struggles to heal from PTSD after Iraq tours

Two harrowing tours as a trauma surgeon in Iraq led Tara Dixon to attempt suicide, but the 40-year-old former Army reservist says helping to save the lives of her fellow comrades was "worth it all."

"If I could go back there and not only help save those lives, but also return those military heroes back to their families, I would," said Dixon, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder following six months of service as a trauma and critical care surgeon on the front lines.

After completing medical school in 2000, Dixon said she was drawn to trauma surgery because "you had to know anatomy and physiology so well" and have the ability to "make split-second decisions."

"That appealed to me," Dixon told

But Dixon, who routinely treated gunshots and stab wounds before her deployment, was not prepared, psychologically, for what would befall her: having to save the lives of those she had grown to know so well and considered "family."

"It puts a different burden on you when you know every single person," said Dixon, fighting back tears. "I didn’t consider that before going over there. That was a very different aspect from what I had ever known."

"You get to know each other's husbands, wives and children," she said.


When Dixon returned to the U.S. in 2010, she was haunted by the experience of treating the gunshot wounds, burns and injuries her fellow comrades sustained from a blast or a Humvee that rolled over.

Loud noises would sound like a bomb. The buzz of helicopters and planes over head would trigger the thought that, "Someone's dying and I have to get to them," said Dixon.

"This part of me was immediately triggered, telling me, 'You must help or someone will die," she said. "When helicopters flew over, I would be back in Iraq. When a car backfired, I was back in Iraq."

"And I couldn’t turn that off," she said. "My heart rate and blood pressure were always up."

The constant triggers led Dixon into depression, and in February 2011 she tried to kill herself by overdosing on Tylenol and aspirin.

Dixon credits the outreach of others in her continued recovery -- as well as support from her Australian Blue Heeler puppy named "Pax," which means "peace" in Latin.

"She brings levity to it all," Dixon said of Pax, who was "chewing up the rug" during the interview.

To others suffering from PTSD, Dixon says, "Reaching out to other people is the most helpful."

"It’s easy to isolate and withdraw, and that’s when you get into trouble," she said.

On Monday, Veterans Day, Dixon, who nearly lost her own life, said she'd go back to Iraq in a heartbeat if she had to.

"Absolutely," she said to the question. "It was worth it all."