PTSD keeps fighting after the battle ends
Updated On: Jul 04 2014 11:43:01 AM EDT
On a recent Saturday morning, more than two dozen men suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder packed into a room for group therapy to share their feelings of anxiety, anger, fear, guilt and hyper vigilance.
In another room, their wives aired their own difficulties and learned how to cope with their spouses' PTSD.
The scene is repeated several times a week in Brevard County and hundreds of times throughout the country as more veterans seek help for the "invisible wound of war."
The number of veterans suffering from PTSD is expected to continue increasing with the U.S involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down.
"I think what we're going to see is thousands and thousands" more cases, said Scott Fairchild, a Melbourne psychologist who specializes in treating PTSD, primarily among veterans. "There is going to be a segment that is going to stuff it in a closet. This festers for a number of years."
Between 11 and 20 out of every 100 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars suffer with PTSD, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The VA believes that as many as 10 percent of Gulf War veterans and about 30 percent of Vietnam veterans suffer from PTSD.
PTSD is a condition that can develop after a person experiences or witnesses a traumatic or terrifying event, such as in war, sexual assault, and disasters, in which serious physical harm occurred or was threatened.
Symptoms can come quickly or come to the surface many years later. They include nightmares, sleeplessness, anxiety, hyper vigilance, anger, feelings of guilt.
Army veteran Paul Benitez served in Desert Storm and the Iraq War and spent several years working as a process server before his anxiety and hyper vigilance became a hindrance in his everyday life.
Benitez's feeling of always having to have his guard up is only one of the many symptoms of PTSD that war veterans and others suffer through. While serving in Iraq in 2003, Benitez and a team of about five soldiers and two Iraqi police would guard the gate at their small forward base, while other soldiers went on missions. He said no one should have to see the carnage that resulted from the fighting in Desert Storm and the Iraq War.
"We were stuck at the gate, so we were like sitting ducks waiting for anyone to come in and attack, which happened a few times," he said.
Benitez, 48, of Palm Bay, said that even years later he is still very vigilant and had to learn to stop at traffic lights, something he did not do while serving overseas because of the threat of attack.
Even a drive on a busy Brevard County road puts Benitez on high alert.
"Being in all that traffic is very stressful," he said. "I'm looking for the car that is going to ram mine."
He feels that at any moment someone could sneak up between the lanes of traffic and attack or that someone could start shooting while he is stopped at a traffic light.
"Ten years later I'm still trying to deprogram myself," said Benitez, who served eight years active duty in the Army and nine years in the Florida National Guard.
According to the PTSD Foundation of America, one in three troops returning from war are being diagnosed with serious Post-Traumatic Stress symptoms but fewer than 40 percent of those will seek help.
Many Vietnam War veterans are just now dealing with PTSD.
Dave Miller never sought help because he did not think he needed it.
"I never thought I had PTSD," said Miller, a door gunner on a Huey helicopter in the Vietnam War.
Recently diagnosed with PTSD, Miller, 68, of Palm Bay, said he saw a lot of combat but always thought that others had seen more than he did, so he could not complain about anything.
"I realize now that I pretty much been lying to myself for 47 years," he said.
Psychologist Fairchild said many people use work or other things to try to suppress the condition.
As an Army veteran, he served 21 years, half of his career in combat health care and retired as a lieutenant colonel. He operates Baytree Behavioral Health in Melbourne.
He said troops having difficulties have at times been told to "suck it up," and move on. That puts off treatment and prolongs the suffering. "If we stuff it in the closet, it builds up and pushes on the door," he said. "We carry more baggage if we don't deal with it. The emotional bucket starts to overflow."
Suppressing such emotions for a long time can lead to them being released in a big wave, Fairchild said.
"PTSD is like being hit by shrapnel," he said. "It goes in and it stays there. When it comes out, it hurts."
Neil Johnson of Titusville was seriously wounded in Vietnam. His wounds didn't kill him, but surviving them has meant a long battle with PTSD.
"My biggest problem that I'm going through right now is guilt," said Johnson, 66, as tears welled in his eyes. "When I was medevac'd out, there were eight dead. I get to breathe and they are dead. The guilt is my biggest problem. It just eats at me."
Such feelings are common among combat survivors.
Bill Vagianos' best friend was killed in Vietnam. Vagianos said he returned from the war suffering from "survivor guilt."
After the war, he went to college, eventually earning a doctorate in psychology.
Today, the Merritt Island psychologist still copes with his own PTSD, even as he helps other vets deal with theirs.
"Over the years I have been able to help veterans who were in despair and homelessness," he said.
Some PTSD sufferers say they have veteran friends who don't realize that they have a problem and probably should be checked for the disorder.
Carlos Gonzalez Alayon, 67, of Merritt Island is a veteran of the Vietnam War who said he had long suffered from PTSD but did not know what his troubles were about.
It wasn't until another veteran, who had observed his actions, told him he should be checked that he sought help.
"I didn't know what PTSD was," he said. "I said, 'Talk to me in English.'"
People need to understand PTSD's effects on a person suffering from it, and how it affects the rest of society, Fairchild said. People need to know if they or a member of their family is suffering from PTSD to get support.
"PTSD affects your whole life," he said.
Rechea Hutchinson said she has lived with her husband Ronnie's struggles with PTSD for nearly 40 years.
"He is terribly angry," she said of her Vietnam veteran husband of 43 years. "The whole time I've been married to him, he's had an explosive temper. For a long time, he wouldn't talk to me about Vietnam."
She said that he came back from the war a different person.
"I know what the war did," she said. "I saw it firsthand."
Now her husband, Ronnie Hutchinson, has been found to have terminal cancer.
She said he also has Parkinson's and other ailments she believes were caused by exposure to Agent Orange, the defoliant used to clear large swaths of vegetation during the Vietnam War.
She wished he had been treated for PTSD early on. She said maybe the cancer would have been caught earlier had he been going to VA for other treatments.
"Our lives would have been different," Rechea Hutchinson said. "I love Ronnie and I know he went through a lot over there."
What's the solution to PTSD?
Some veterans said that with therapy, they have learned to control some of the symptoms. But they said dealing with PTSD is an ongoing process.
"If you hear from somebody that there is this magic cure for PTSD, just keep on going down the road," Fairchild said.
"I personally would say that there are no specific cure for PTSD, but we become increasingly better at managing the symptoms," he added.
Talk therapy is the most common treatment.
Diane Short, administrator of TogetherWeServed.com, said she tries to find help for the veterans members of the military-only social forum she runs.
Many of the 1.5 million members discuss their difficulties with PTSD online.
"No matter what era they served in, no matter what war they served in, they all wore the same boots," she said. "I talk to these guys daily through chat and email. We try to find them local help."
A lot of the men and women who participate in forums and chat on the web site have not sought help for PTSD, but share their troubles with other veterans on the site.
"They find camaraderie and understanding that they are not alone and that's a part of healing," Short said. "Together We Served is really a tight-knit community."
Medication should only be used when someone cannot function and should not be a long-term treatment, said Dr. Georgia Davis, a psychiatrist with Baytree Behavioral Health. Some may need medication, but treatment must focus on the underlying issues.
She said medication has its place in treatment but should be very limited in treating someone with PTSD.
If medication is used, "they have to be monitored and they have to be adjusted for the patient," Davis said.
If someone has problems with sleep, it may be fixed by taking care of other symptoms, she said. "Fix the main things and nature will take" care of the others, she said.
Fairchild said that as a society we have a role in seeing that veterans returning from war receive the reception and treatment they deserve and need.
Veterans suffering from PTSD said they want people to understand their condition but that they do not want any special treatment or for anyone to see them differently.
They don't want to be asked about their difficult experiences and don't want any sympathy.
"The image in the public right now is a ticking time bomb," Fairchild said, "and that's not always so."
War veteran Vagianos said the public should understand that some of those veterans returning from war will suffer from PTSD, but it is not just veterans who get the condition.
"If the brain is a muscle and you keep punching it, it's going to bruise," he said. "When that happens, there should be a healing response. That is reliving the experience."
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