Honoring Our Veterans Who Suffer from PTS
June 27 is set aside as the national awareness day for post-traumatic stress disorder (referred to in this article as PTS). Approximately one third of all soldiers who are fighting or have fought in the War on Terror have some degree of PTS. American Thinker interviewed experts as well as those with firsthand knowledge about PTS.
In his latest novel, The Renegades, Thomas Young describes PTS as "trace elements of toxin in [a character's] psyche." Having served in the Air National Guard, he commented to American Thinker, "PTS is an extremely important issue for returning vets. People need to be reminded that when veterans come home, it does not necessarily mean their war is over." This is a common theme among the experts as well.
General Peter Chiarelli, the former Army vice chief of staff, who now works for One Mind for Research, wants Americans to understand the need for better diagnostics for those with brain injuries. Regarding PTS, he is hoping to eventually achieve better patient outcomes and treatments. He refers to PTS not as a disorder, but as an injury. "I wish the 'D' would change to 'I.' Because the D-word was chosen, there are a whole lot of people out there who are not seeking the treatment that they need. Disorder means something different in our society than injury. People might be stigmatized and will not go and get the treatment needed. People that won't seek treatment because of this stigma many times self medicate with alcohol and drugs."
Leslie Martin, the director of the PTS outpatient service in Los Angeles, agrees, commenting that she makes sure that the word "disorder" is not used when meeting with veterans.
Retired Colonel Dr. Charles Hoge, who treats service members as a staff psychiatrist, wrote the book Once A Warrior-Always A Warrior to explain the skills needed for veterans returning home. He agrees with Thomas Young: "Everyone in combat will experience some transition challenges when they come home. You are not the same person as you were when you were deployed the first time."
Dr. Hoge describes PTS as a physiological change in the body that has to do with the part of the nervous system controlling automatic functions. This comes about as a result of some trauma and causes physiological, emotional, psychological, and behavioral changes. The depression and anxiety exhibited are more likely to cause headaches, chronic pain, and other ailments. He lists the criteria for diagnosis as traumatic experience, nightmares, flashbacks, anger, avoidance, staying away from crowded areas, and avoiding driving areas which remind them of the war zone (for example, overpasses and potholes). The symptoms include being easily startled, a high heart rate, higher blood pressure, and a lot of muscle tension.
Hoge told American Thinker, "With PTS, the person's body is taking over as it did in the combat environment. For example, the numbing of emotions in combat is a good thing. Anger in combat allows you to focus. If you lose a team member, you cannot break down with grief, but you must do your job and finish the mission. However, when the soldier comes home, that continues. It is not shut down."
Dr. Susan Borja, who works at the National Institute of Mental Health, wants Americans to understand that those suffering from PTS will never fully eliminate the memories. Those who can gain control "will be able to take the sting out. It will never turn into a good memory, nor should it. It will always be horrible, and it never has to be made okay. It will hopefully become a memory that doesn't take hold of someone's life."
Leslie Martin, in treating her patients, understands that for a period of time, the trauma is so "profound and gut-wrenching that a person will avoid talking about it. Eventually the person will have to relive the very worst thing that ever happened to them in their life, over and over again. Although the memories can never be taken away, those suffering from PTS will learn to manage it and respond differently to the memories when they occur."
Dr. Hoge noted that writing his book was a life-altering experience, since he realized he had to change the way he communicated and practiced medicine. "I had to approach the treatment from a warrior's perspective and engage them so they can come up with a solution that they are comfortable with -- a more patient-centered approach. I made sure I adjusted to the individual since there is not a one-size treatment." All these experts agreed that the treatment which seems to work best is prescribing some medication combined with specific techniques in psychotherapy, emphasizing the trauma focus. Dr. Hoge also likes to include relaxation techniques such as exercise.
Travis Cox is the director of an organization, Fitco Cares Foundation, whose co-founder is Chris Kyle, the SEAL who wrote American Sniper. It provides fitness equipment to wounded veterans, whether emotionally or physically. Travis agreed to share his story to help others. He regards himself as one of the lucky ones, since he feels that he has conquered his PTS.
Travis was a special ops sniper for the Marines. In 2006 he was deployed to Iraq, and he describes the experience as six weeks of intense danger without one day of reprieve. Within that time frame, he saw several of his buddies die. "I was only twenty-one years old. It is hard enough to lose one guy, but having to lose that many that quickly was unbearable. When I came home I was very hyper, uncomfortable in crowds, would swerve while driving to avoid what I thought were IEDs, and was detached from family and friends. I turned to alcohol and drug abuse to numb and calm my nerves since I could not sleep because of the dreams and flashbacks, which occurred even during the day."
Since the VA did not work, Travis sought out a private therapist who treats him for no charge. What did work was a combination of individualized therapy, medication, proper exercise, and proper nutrition. He now feels he has the tools "to check myself, telling myself that is not how you want to handle this. There are constant triggers that happen at least a dozen times every day. I finally found an amazing private therapist. I feel I really got help and have been sober for one year."
A spouse tells another success story. Wendy Baggs' husband was a Marine recon officer. During a 2006 IED blast in Iraq, there were four who lost their lives and four seriously injured, including her husband. He had a broken pelvis, a concussion, and shrapnel in his buttocks, which prevented him for sitting or lying down for a period of time. After returning home, Wendy described her husband as being very argumentative and agitated instead of being the calm person he was before. One night she found him crouched in their house, saying, "They don't know I am the only Marine here." Within the first six months of his injury, he refused to talk about his trauma and became very emotional when asked, which was very frustrating for Wendy. Wendy also thinks he has survivor's remorse, since he had traded places with someone who was then killed.
He did not attend many professional sessions. She remembers him coming home one day and saying he had spoken to someone about his problem. What worked for him was talking to a core set of friends who were part of the platoon and were there that day. Wendy's marriage survived by means of both spouses having "tolerance and patience. I also read, which helped me make insightful decisions. I think it is a success story right now. You never now what may trigger a new reaction, so it will always be with him. For example, we don't go around fireworks. I would say he is not cured, but it is much milder."
Anna Bigham is the executive director of Hidden Wounds, an organization that provides emergency and interim counseling services to veterans and their families. She told American Thinker a very sad story. Her brother, Marine Corporal Mills Bigham, committed suicide in 2009 and was only twenty-three years old. He had four traumatic events occur while being deployed in Iraq. His first kill was a thirteen-year-old boy who had thrown a grenade. Because it was a dud, Mills always thought of himself as a child-killer. His second kill was a blind man who refused to follow directions and crossed over the boundary line. He also had survivor's remorse, since he exchanged places with a fellow soldier who was then blown up by an IED. The fourth traumatic incident occurred when he traded guns with a buddy who shot and killed himself.
Anna noted to American Thinker, "My brother was begging and begging for help. It takes nine months to process paperwork to see someone at the VA. You have to book an appointment anywhere from three to six weeks out. After he transitioned to the reserves, he was told the VA medically covered him, so he decided not to take extra coverage offered, Tricare Insurance, which would have cost about $120 per month. This prevented him from affording a private therapist."
About five months before he died, Anna's brother was living with her, so she saw his mood changes. Sometimes he would wander the streets with his nightmares, not remembering these incidents later. During the day he refused to go out, and "he had anger and turmoil inside. He asked me to put a chair in front of my bedroom door so he would not hurt me. Anything could trigger him. He would be okay, and then all of a sudden he would go off. At other times we would laugh and have fun, so we felt he could hold on between appointments. Yet I remember that day he killed himself, looking at him, and it was like his soul was empty."
All those interviewed want friends, family, or those who think they have PTS to seek help immediately. This article provides websites where help can be sought. They want everyone to understand that having PTS does not mean a person is crazy, and affected people should not feel a stigma associated with this problem. Travis Cox summarized it best: "PTS will never go away. It will always be there. Most injuries can be fixed. This one cannot be cured, but can be managed like someone with diabetes. Some of our buddies sacrificed their lives, and now it is our duty to not submit. We have to stay motivated and proactive because we owe it to ourselves, our friends, our family, and our buddies who gave their lives so we can still be here."