Duty to Soldiers, oneself: Combat veterans seek out behavioral health services to help with PTSD
June 16, 2011
BAMBERG, Germany -- He knew there was a problem even before he returned to Fort Carson from his deployment to Iraq.
It started with the dreams. The only way the Soldier could fall asleep was to dream about going door-to-door killing Iraqis.
"I am a medic," said the Soldier, who is now stationed in Bamberg. "I should be saving lives not dreaming of killing people. I knew something was wrong then."
Then the Soldier started hearing voices of children and began imagining that he saw dead bodies everywhere.
For this Soldier, who is a participant in the U.S. Army Garrison Bamberg's Behavioral Health Combat Stress group, the affects of multiple deployments have left not only visible scars on his body, but invisible ones as well.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is an anxiety disorder that can occur after experiencing a traumatic event. There are four symptoms of PTSD, which include reliving the event, avoiding situations that remind you of the event, feeling numb and being keyed up, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' National Center for PTSD. These are manifested in ways including actual physical ailments, sleeping problems, drug and alcohol addictions, depression and relationship issues including physical and emotional abuse.
Almost all Soldiers returning from a deployment will have some of these symptoms, experts say. However, most Soldiers will readjust to life back home over the next few months.
For some Soldiers, though, these symptoms won't go away. In fact, the symptoms get worse and affect both their professional and personal life. Experts estimate that PTSD affects 11-20 percent of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, according to the National Center for PTSD.
Due to the rising number of Soldiers suffering from PTSD, the Army is seeking new ways to treat the disorder including medical treatments, counseling and even group therapy.
The garrison has seen an increase in the number of Soldiers coming into the Behavioral Health Clinic since the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team returned in the fall, said Rick Velez, one of the clinic's therapists. Ironically, he said, the majority of people they see aren't from the 173rd but from other units.
"Getting a Soldier to admit they have PTSD and then come in for services is really difficult," Velez said. "The Soldiers think that people will look at them like they have a mental problem, so they are really, really shy about getting that label."
Typically, Soldiers won't seek help for PTSD until several years after the deployment, Velez said. The Soldiers think they can handle the symptoms on their own or that they will go away over time. But, those issues don't get better.
"The problems continue to manifest to the point where they need to do something about that," Velez said.
A lot of Soldiers don't recognize their own PTSD symptoms because they have lived with them for more than a year, said George Petty, BHC psychologist.
"They are scared and just want it to go away, so they avoid it," Petty said. "Medication can help, but it doesn't cure PTSD. It doesn't get better on its own. If you just ignore it, it won't go away."
Many of these Soldiers are directed to get help. About 90 percent of the Soldiers in the Combat Stress Group are facing medical evaluation boards, Velez said.
"They have gotten to the point where they are going to be separated from the military because their medical issues are preventing them from being effective Soldiers," Velez said. "So when they get to that point, their life has become so difficult to manage that they are now willing to get the help that they need."
But, Velez said, it doesn't have to be that way. PTSD doesn't have to be a career-ender. PTSD is extremely treatable, especially if caught early on, he said.
"What we want the Soldiers to realize is that the sooner they get treatment, the less likely it will get to the point where it is going to impact their career or their ability to just live their life," Velez said. "Ideally, we would like to get them as soon as they start recognizing there is any kind of problem. The earlier you can treat PTSD to the event, the better success rates are."
The Bamberg Soldier, who asked not to be named, finally went to seek help when he returned to Colorado from the deployment. However, after his counselor told him to snap out of it, he gave up on the idea of getting help. But his problems didn't go away.
Finally, after his wife encouraged him to seek help again, he started coming to the Behavioral Health Clinic and the Combat Stress Group.
During the session, the three Soldiers shared their experiences with PTSD and with navigating the Army medical process. While they talked, the Soldiers often couldn't help keep the tremble of raw emotion from their voices, unshed tears glistening in their eyes when talking about their children, their hopelessness, or frustration and anger over the medical system.
The group, which is held in conjunction with individual therapy sessions, provides a safe place for the Soldiers to talk. It also provides the therapists a way to monitor each of the clients' mental state.
Group therapy, for any kind of issue whether it is dealing with weight loss, addiction or abuse, has proven to be effective, Velez said.
"It is interesting what research says and what my own personal experience has shown - that clients benefit the most from groups, regardless of the issue," he said. "It's the knowing that I am not the only one dealing with this kind of issue."
For example, he said at an individual session he might give a client some tips on relaxation.
"The client will say 'yeah, yeah, whatever,'" Velez said. "When another Soldier says it - who's equally dealing with the same kind of issue - that is far more valuable to them."
Although it has been around for about a year now, the group has been slow to grow. Currently, about 10 Soldiers are in the group, which meets weekly on Wednesdays from 10 to 11:30 a.m., Velez said.
"It has been a real struggle," he said. "Even the name, is threatening to them. Soldiers get worried if they get labeled with PTSD it will affect their career."
For those that do find their way to the group, it is a place they can find comfort.
"They may stop seeing their therapist, but will keep coming to group," Petty said. "This may be the only constant in their life."
Petty said the group atmosphere helps reinforce the idea that they are not alone in this battle.
"They feel that they are isolated," Petty said. "That no one understands them. So, they are reluctant to talk to someone who hasn't shared the same experience."
For another group participant, the symptoms he was experiencing made him feel alone.
"I felt cut off," the Soldier said. "My chain of command wasn't supportive at all. In this group I actually feel like I am not alone. I can talk to people who actually give a crap and don't call me a piece of crap."
Velez and Petty say that the Army has made strides in identifying and treating PTSD in the past few years.
"The Army has come a long way in recognizing PTSD as a real issue," Velez said. "We are moving in the right direction."
In fact, the Army has hired 250 more behavioral health care providers and more than 40 marriage and family therapists recently to work in military treatment facilities, according to a Army Behavioral Health fact sheet.In addition, the Army launched in 2007 a PTSD and mild traumatic brain injury education program that reached more than 1 million Soldiers. However, leadership within the units still need more sensitivity training on PTSD and more funding is needed for treatment, the second group therapy participant claimed.
"You send Soldiers into harm's way to get all jacked up and get their life screwed up," said the Soldier, who went on to criticize the Army for not taking care of Soldiers when they return from a deployment. For now, the Combat Stress Group participants continue to work through the medical process and find some amount of solace in their weekly meetings. For more information about the combat stress group or the Behavioral Health Clinic call 0951-300-7793. For more information about PTSD, log onto www.ptsd.va.gov.