By Chris Roberts / El Paso TimesMarch 30, 2009
FORT BLISS -- In Iraq, Army Staff Sgt. Edward Wood woke to the sound of gunfire and went to sleep with it.
"Something was always going on. It got monotonous," said Wood, who served in Baghdad's Sadr City in 2003 and 2004, when insurgents regularly attacked U.S. soldiers.
Staying alive required a state of hyper-vigilance. Wood survived combat, but when he left Iraq he could not turn off his warrior's intensity.
He was in the first group of soldiers who were treated for post-traumatic stress disorder at Fort Bliss' Restoration and Resilience Center, which opened about 18 months ago. In all, the center has admitted 110 shell-shocked veterans with the idea of helping them reduce stress and continue their military careers.
Two graduates are back in combat zones, serving with distinction, said John Fortunato, a clinical psychologist who founded the center.
Of the center's 80 graduates, 64 percent have been classified as "fit for duty," he said. Thirty others are still going through the program.
Wood, 38, says he understands that there is no cure for his stress disorder, but the coping techniques he has learned and the kindred souls he has found make the symptoms -- anxiety, panic, depression and flashbacks -- a little easier to live with.
The center uses treatments ranging from group counseling to Reiki massage, a technique to balance the body's energy flow.
The massage has helped soldiers sleep, Fortunato said. Biofeedback is another form of treatment, employing
electronic devices to indicate when a person reaches a state of relaxation.
Fortunato said he has applied for $1.3 million that would be used for a three-year study on whether those who make it through the program remain in the Army long-term.
Soldiers suffering from what Fortunato calls "combat-stress injury" are not the same people they once were, he said.
He described the thought processes typical of someone suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder: "I used to think of myself as a gentle father and husband and I've now killed 26 people. Who am I now' I used to think life had a meaning and I've seen it strewn across a road. I'm not sure life has any meaning."
When soldiers head outside the protective razor wire of a forward operating base, he said, they know it might be the last day of their lives.
"Your heart is in your throat every time you pass that wire," Fortunato said. "The volume is turned up and you'd better not turn it off."
A rock that wasn't on the side of the road yesterday could be a sign of a roadside bomb. A village that appears empty could signal deadly ambush.
"Some get back to the FOB and pop in a DVD and let it go," Fortunato said. "Others stay hyper-aroused."
That wartime intensity fried Wood's system.
After returning to the United States and through a two-year tour of duty in Korea, he suffered chest pains, numbness in his arms and difficulty breathing. He was convinced he was having a series of heart attacks.
But after doctors wired him to a stack of instruments and put him on a treadmill, they referred him for a psychological exam.
"I told them, 'I'm not crazy,' " said Wood, a Michigan native who has spent more than 19 years as a soldier. "They said, 'It's not because you're crazy. Have you ever heard of a panic attack'' "
It took him a while to admit he needed help, Wood said, but he finally decided he would do anything to change the way he felt. That was when he heard about Fortunato's center.
"I still take (medication) for panic attacks," Wood said. "But I just find that being around people who are like me, I can relax because I don't have to hide it."
Lt. Col. Pete Evans commands the Warrior Transition Battalion, where wounded soldiers are assigned while they heal and rehabilitate.
"I give it two thumbs up," Evans said of the center. "I go back to Desert Shield and Desert Storm, and even two or three years ago we didn't have these resources."
Soldiers typically are reluctant to enroll until they see a friend or buddy go through the treatment, he said.
Not everybody succeeds. Some soldiers drop out of the program. Others go through it more than once, still searching for ways to stop the nightmares and flashbacks.
Wood had been a leader, but found himself faltering until he discovered that stress from combat was his problem.
Although he has decided to retire from the Army, he said, his participation in the group has heightened his self-awareness and his self-image.
"I didn't feel so worthless," Wood said, adding that he used to be lighthearted and fun-loving. "I'm not the same person. I'm trying to get used to who I am now."
Chris Roberts may be reached at email@example.com;546-6136.