BAY PINES, Fla., Nov. 11, 2015 -- "It was great being a medic, and I loved helping people, but doing my job meant something bad had happened."
Al Alcantara, a retired Army staff sergeant who served 21 years as a combat medic, recently graduated from an inpatient treatment program for post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, at Bay Pines Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Bay Pines, Florida.
"I didn't feel comfortable sitting back in the rear with the gear, so I would volunteer to go with the Soldiers who were going outside the wire on missions," he said. "I knew they could use me on the front lines."
Alcantara, who grew up in the Philippines, said he wanted to be in the military since he was a boy.
"I've always wanted to help people," he said. "I love [military] history and read about World War II. A lot of American Soldiers risked their lives to help liberate our country from the Japanese. I felt like I owed a blood debt to America, so I joined the U.S. Army instead of the Philippine army."
Alcantara is now a U.S. citizen.
PTSD SYMPTOMS, CAREER
After three consecutive deployments to Iraq, he said his Family and friends noticed his personality started changing.
"The people around me noticed I started cursing and was easily angered. I used to be a very patient person. I refused to admit I was changing. I was in denial," Alcantara said.
He buried himself in his work, he said. Although he had saved many lives, losing people and seeing the "destruction and death on both sides" drove him to turn his grief into motivation at work, Alcantara said.
"I decided I was going to make sure I would train our guys to be able to come back home. .... It became a personal mission for me to train my Soldiers so that we can all go back home in one piece," he said. "That became a personal goal for me at that point and that's what kept me going. I had a purpose. I had Soldiers to train to make sure we would all come back home safe and sound, and I wanted to be able to continue my military career,"
PTSD SYMPTOMS INCREASE
Near the end of his career, Alcantara said, his symptoms increased and he began having nightmares and intrusive thoughts in addition to developing a sleep disorder, but was afraid of the stigma to seek help.
"I was becoming very destructive to a point where it affected not just my military life but my personal life," he said. "I was being combative with my wife. I refused to acknowledge I had PTSD. It took the chaplain and several therapists to get me to acknowledge there's something severe going on from deep within. I have a lot of anxiety going on. Every little thing would get me mad. I became very destructive. I put several holes in the wall. I really didn't understand what was going on at that point."
FIRST RESIDENTIAL PROGRAM
Alcantara said his supervisors recognized his PTSD symptoms and directed him to seek help.
"I was skeptical at first," he said. "I felt like no one could help me at that point, and I was starting to have suicidal ideations. I had lost at least two more of my battle buddies at that point. Death seemed welcoming at that point. I wanted to end the pain I was going through. It just felt very confusing. I couldn't concentrate and couldn't sleep. I didn't like that I was taking it out on my Soldiers and my Family."
"The residential program helped me understand what I was really going through and even then it took about 30 days before I got anything out of the program," Alcantara added.
He said when he went into the program, he was determined to "self-terminate" afterward but the program helped him for a while. He said he learned about the causes and symptoms of PTSD and discovered that he was not alone.
"I learned that Vietnam vets to this day are suffering with PTSD ... There are other people like me who are suffering, so I decided at that point that it's a choice - I had a choice; I can live my life to the fullest or I can let it all end," Alcantara said. "I've always been fighter. It's going to be a cold day in hell if I'm going to let PTSD win ... so I decided to fight it. I started learning more. I put into practice what I learned. I wanted to see life in full color again."
Before the residential program, Alcantara said, he isolated himself - deliberately avoiding people and withdrawing. After the residential program, he said, he had hope again. But after he left the military, he regressed and started thinking about suicide again and became destructive. He said he then didn't think could be around people, so he couldn't work for two years.
Alcantara had been seeking outpatient care in Savannah, Georgia, through the VA when his therapist recommended inpatient care at the Bay Pines VA Medical Center in Bay Pines, Florida.
"I was out of control, and the tools I had learned from my previous in residential treatment were failing," he said. "I've learned a lot at Bay Pines. I've picked up more tools and a lot of reinforcement of the tools I used to have. It generated new hope for me again. The most important tool I was able to pick up here is that I need support. I can't do it alone.
"I was isolated, withdrawn and just avoided people for the last three years, and that has not worked at all," Alcantara said. "I've learned here how to open up a little bit and just having new friends, having support, having someone who can understand and empathize with what you've been through just helped me a lot. I'm not alone. This program helped me a lot."
He said his therapists, instructors and peers helped him during the eight-week program.
"He was all in knots and turmoil, kind of shaky and wasn't making eye contact, and he just kept saying, 'The tools are failing me. They just don't work,'" said Rose Stauffer, a licensed clinical social worker and one of Alcantara's therapists at Bay Pines. "He was really in despair. He was really feeling like he had made progress and then he had totally regressed, particularly in the area of anger."
Stauffer said it took weeks to work through Alcantara's triggers, and he was still "pinging," as he called it, as she earned his trust. She said he kept talking about packing his bags and leaving, but the other veterans convinced him to stay.
"The other veterans started to reach out to him, and he really allowed his peers to help him," she said. "What I love about the veterans is they have a tendency to take each other under their wings and they get tight and have the therapy with each other."
Alcantara experienced his first therapeutic turning point when the veterans reached out to him, Stauffer said, and a second one came when she set aside specific therapy models in favor of just talking to him.
"He had already had cognitive processing therapy so we were trying to figure out what would be the best therapy for him, and he saw me pick up my book because I like to be true to the manual and try to let the veteran know I'm not making this stuff up," she said. "He said, 'You're just seeing me as a number. You're not hearing me. You're not listening to me.' So I just put everything aside, dropped everything, and we started talking. And that's when he was able to turn the corner."
Alcantara became close with his peer and friend, Vietnam veteran Jim Alderman, a former Marine.
"He [Alderman] understands where I'm coming from and vice versa," he said. "Meeting him has made a significant impact on my PTSD where now it's cracked it open where I could actually have friends again. I needed that. I've lost a lot of friends. I need friends like him. I felt like I was able to open up to him and share with him. I need a social network. I think it's going to be a little bit better this time," Alcantara said.
Alcantara said that when he gets home he wants to avoid entering into "isolation mode" by engaging in social activities, possibly through veterans groups.
HOPE FOR THE FUTURE
The fellow veterans said they plan to keep in touch and to meet regularly.
"I'm going to make sure all of us are going to be okay," Alderman said. "Al, he's more than a friend, he's like a brother, and he's been hooked to my hip. We talk just like brothers would. We've laughed and cried and just had a good time."
Alderman also plans to teach Cantara to cliff dive, he said.
Alcantara encourages those who may have PTSD to seek help.
"You're not alone, there is help out there available to you. If you're out there and need help, if you need assistance, there's help and there's hope. You are not alone," he said.