ANTIOCH, Calif. — Though soldiers who return home from combat are thousands of miles away and often years removed from the battleground, the trauma never completely goes away.
And those dealing with the invisible wounds on a day-by-day basis need help and support.
That's the message that newly formed group Operation Wounded Minds and Medal of Honor recipient Ty Carter hammered home Friday.
"Post-traumatic stress, the best way I can define it, is an instinctive, reflexive reaction of your body and mind to recall a traumatic incident, so you can avoid repeating it," Carter said.
Traumas don't just happen on the battlefield but with first-responders and victims of car accidents, robberies and assaults.
"Once that happens, it changes your perception of reality. Post-traumatic stress doesn't make your decisions for you; it kind of uses horse blinders to where you're not seeing all the good things," he said.
Carter, an Antioch resident from 2002 to 2008 before joining the Army, was awarded the nation's highest military honor last August by President Barack Obama.
Carter fought off Taliban attackers during an Oct. 3, 2009, battle at Combat Outpost Keating in Afghanistan while bunkered down behind a Humvee, making multiple runs through a barrage of bullets to grab ammunition, and risking his life to help severely injured soldier Stephan Mace as he was caught in a barrage of enemy fire.
Upon accepting the award, Carter urged Obama and the country to focus on post-traumatic stress and the need to help soldiers who are suffering from it.
Since then, his new purpose has been working at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington to raise awareness about the need for counseling and support networks for those returning to civilian life.
Friday's event at the home of Mark Carter, Ty's father, was a homecoming of sorts. The 34-year-old received a motorcycle escort from San Francisco International Airport, and some firefighters saluted him while standing on an overpass on Highway 24 in Lafayette, Mark Carter said.
Once they arrived in Antioch, about three dozen East Contra Costa veterans enjoyed a barbecue lunch at the elder Carter's home. They all eagerly shook the soldier's hand and took pictures with him.
Operation Wounded Minds was formed in February by Mark Carter and Dwayne Jones of Lafayette.
The advocacy group is planning several local events in May in preparation for Memorial Day weekend and PTSD Awareness Month in June.
"We all suffer from it. But it's something you manage," said Steve Todd, post commander for VFW 10789 in Brentwood. "It can go away, but the slightest trigger can bring it back."
"It can come in a lot of different forms," added Lenard Long of Brentwood.
Todd said an unexpected explosion in his neighborhood made him jump off the couch last week and into combat mode.
Both men said they've found that spouses are the best judge of the trauma.
Without counseling and a willingness to manage it, the stress can turn into depression or addiction to drugs and alcohol or unemployment, Jones said.
The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 22 veterans die by suicide every day.
Jones said that if a foreign adversary came to the United States and killed 22 soldiers a day, the country would spend billions to stop it.
"There's no difference. They need our support," he said.