Challenger shuttle whistleblower reflects on struggle with PTSD

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Roger Boisjoly
Roger Boisjoly

The following is a letter from Roger Boisjoly to a friend, in which he reminisces about his life since blowing the whistle on the Challenger Shuttle disaster, and his struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Boisjoly was one of three engineers who, the day before the il-fated January 1986 mission, strenuously objected to the launch, predicting correctly that the O-rings in the solid rocket boosters would fail in the very low temperatures forecast for that day. Their subsequent mistreatment by their employer – and public outrage at this – led to demands for whistleblower protection in the USA.

Published with the kind permission of Roger Boisjoly, in the hope that this may help others who suffer from PTSD.


Sent: Wednesday, November 03, 2010
Subject: Long Overdue Communication

Dear Joe:

I received the book you sent me titled $WINDLER$ and wish to express my very deep appreciation and thanks. However, at the same time I would like to express my shameful lack of communication with you for quite sometime now. I almost don't know where to begin my explanation to you for my behavior because you have beaten me to do what I was planning to do recently by sending the book.

Several weeks ago, I had planned to write to you but a vacation with my wife put off that communication until now. Even in your latest note to me dated October 22, 2010, you thanked me for being your mentor and I am thrilled to know and to be reminded by you that my actions and lectures explaining my position for doing what I did on the Challenger launch decision has made a positive impact on you.

I tell you this because my only initial purpose in lecturing to students and practitioners was to inform my audiences about the overwhelming lack of Ethics, Integrity and Organizational Behavior that took place during the Challenger launch decision process and also that what I experienced was typical of our Industrial and Government complexes here in the U. S. and my hope was to try and make a difference in how everyone would act in their chosen professions.

After almost 24 years of speaking, I know that I have accomplished my original goal from some of the feedback I have received through the years and sometimes many years after some had heard me speak. I use this as my opening to what I have to say that will follow.

I want you to know that I have agreed and continue to agree with everything that you have tried to accomplish and have accomplished to some extent. You should be very proud of what you have accomplished and continue to accomplish. I admire your ability to stay the course through all the negative backlash that you had to contend with from the Establishment in Canada.

The heart of what I have to confess to you is that outside of being able to communicate my lectures to others, I have been essentially unable to do anything else outside of my lectures, except to help some Whistleblowers (Truthtellers - my term) with advice to help them cope with the circumstances they would find themselves in as the result of their actions concerning proper Ethics and Integrity. I do not know if I have ever informed you that I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from my ordeal with Challenger but I want to tell you now, not by way of excuse but for purposes of explanation.

The heart of what I have to confess to you is that outside of being able to communicate my lectures to others, I have been essentially unable to do anything else outside of my lectures, except to help some Whistleblowers (Truthtellers - my term) with advice to help them cope with the circumstances they would find themselves in as the result of their actions concerning proper Ethics and Integrity. I do not know if I have ever informed you that I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from my ordeal with Challenger but I want to tell you now, not by way of excuse but for purposes of explanation.

The 63 initial free college lectures I gave over three college semesters starting in January 1987 that were fully supported by my psychologist as the best thing I could do for myself to help me heal from PTSD provided me with a relatively quick recovery from PTSD and allowed me to work myself back into the mainstream of life with one very large restriction as told to me by my psychologist at the end of my last visit with him sometime in 1988. He told me that the speaking would help me accelerate my return to society much quicker than if I had just been able to see him over the course of perhaps 5 to 7 years without having the chance to share my story with others.

However, he also told me that PSTD is not fully curable and that I will definitely be subject to many unknown triggers that could affect me in a very negative way once again and that I would need to protect myself against such events to remain viable in general society. My psychologist's parting words of advice were to seriously consider at first to not listen to any nightly news programs, take a subscription to a newspaper or news magazine or listen to any talk radio programs so I would not once again be subjected to negative bombardment of information that could create a serious trigger resulting in a relapse into PTSD. I followed his advice for quite some time and as a result I remained quite upbeat and happy.

I loved my new career as a Professional Engineer in my own home based company with my wife totally free from the corporate structure of organizational misbehavior, etc. and I especially was thrilled to be able to use all my Aerospace Engineering experience in my practice as a Forensic Engineering consultant and Expert Witness primarily in Product Liability, Trade Secrets and Ethics cases. Even so, the arm of blackball retribution followed me into my own business by companies refusing to allow me to be hired on the Defense side of cases and so my business was unfortunately skewed towards working for Plaintiffs.

All this occurred from the erroneous Corporate belief that all Truthtellers should be prevented from having any type of decent recovery from the event in which they participated to correct a wrong. Interestingly, the few Defense cases that I managed to secure were cases that I won big time for my client attorneys but even with that, the invisible Blackball continued against me. After about five years of forensic work coupled with lecturing, I was literally on top of the world with my wildest dreams coming true and my wife and I were thrilled that we had come back so far from from the depths of the hell we were in during the aftermath of Challenger.

Well that feeling of well-being changed rather quickly when the Defense Bar of Attorneys in Nevada decided to try and run me out of the business by trying to find the triggers that would destroy either my business by having me revisit PTSD or by creating such a pressure cooker environment that I would probably have a heart attack. I figured that they were tired of being beaten in court every time by me as they continued to attempt to win their cases with smoke and mirrors instead of the true facts in the cases which is what I always used and was able to put my expert testimony in layperson's terms so that the jury was fully able to understand what I was explaining to them and that made all the Nevada defense attorneys very upset.

They made this attempt to destroy me by brutalizing me during two successive depositions by asking me questions on the two separate cases that had nothing to do with my case work but rather with my medical history with PTSD, Challenger and any other negative things they could bring up during over five hours of pounding questioning. Although I never missed an answer to any of their questions, they were killing me one question at a time and by the time the depositions were over, I was physically ill at home for the better part of the week succeeding each deposition but the attorneys never had a clue that they had been successful at the time.

After this happened in two successive depositions in Nevada, I had a serious discussion with my wife to discuss my health. I told her that we could continue to make a significant amount of badly needed income and have a very short life due to either a recurrence of PTSD or heart attack or we could get out of the forensic business after I completed my active cases in other states and have a chance for a longer life at a very much reduced income because lecturing only comprised about 10 to 15 percent of our income. The decision was easy from a health standpoint but very difficult to make from an income standpoint because I was not 100% confident that I could pull off my second business transition into a new business model by only lecturing full time, especially since I had been receiving invitations to speak up to this point without any promotion effort on my part.

This was a very sad occasion for me personally because I really loved what I was doing and was always able to act with full Integrity and there was no one upstream of me that could direct me to do otherwise. Well. to make a long story short, the second transition worked out okay and we ended up having sufficient funds for our needs plus a bit more and that is where we ended up. I officially retired at the end of 2005 from accepting invitations to speak where I had to fly to a destination because the security people at airports were putting me through hell on just about every flight I took and it did not matter that I had flown over a million miles on Delta alone. I felt at one point that I had the word terrorists carved into my forehead as I continued to be singled out for searches when passengers all around me were getting a pass.

What this is all leading up to is the fact that I still need to be very careful about possible triggers to avoid another bout with PTSD. To that end you have not heard from me for quite some time. I cannot remember the last time I communicated to you about something that you have sent to me and that is because I was starting to feel the negative effects from your struggles and I had to terminate my contact or potentially suffer another round of PTSD and that was and still is something I never want to experience again.

My good friend, I am so sorry that I had not informed you earlier about my problems with reading so much about your struggles and its upsetting effects on me. Please don't take what I am telling you as lack of my support for everything that you have done and are still doing, because I am still near or at your number one fan position but just unable to write and express my support until now.

Also, please know that this is very difficult for me to express to you since you have been so supportive of me. It's simply the PTSD and the fear of sliding back that keeps me focused on what the psychologist told me to do and it has worked for me nearly 25 years. Please accept my deepest apology for not writing to you sooner.

Best Regards,

Roger

P.S. I continue to speak about four times each year at seminars arranged in Southern California by my very good professor friend, Mark Maier, and his wife. The seminars are all about Leadership versus Dictatorship type management and I speak about Challenger as a model for what goes wrong when professionals abdicate their Integrity.

I am currently in the process of giving all my  written and recorded work to the Chapman University Library to archive all the material I have on Challenger and all my lectures on various related subjects. My wife and I drive from our home in Nephi, Utah and back to participate and thus avoid airport security. We have a wonderful time as we are treated very well by out hosts and audiences.

Other than getting older (I am now 72) we are as well as can be expected at this point in our lives. I sincerely hope that this note finds everything well at your end.


Related

Wikipedia entry for Roger Boisjoly

Challenger: The Untold Story (a documentary movie)