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Ohio veteran's story illustrates struggles of post-traumatic stress

First of two parts

He held the barrel of the gun steady in his mouth. His finger slowly added pressure to the trigger.

Images of fellow U.S. Marines who had died or killed themselves went through Roget Aovad’s mind. He closed his eyes, tightened the grip on the gun, and prepared to join the ghosts dancing in his head.

But three more images stared back at him — Christian, 3, Nikolas 2, and Elodie, 1.

“I didn’t bring three children into this world so that they would have to grow up without a father,” Mr. Aovad, now 26, remembers telling himself during that difficult time last year. “I didn’t know how I was going to do it. But I decided at that moment that I would beat this. I wanted to be there for them.”

The story of Lance Corporal Aovad of Sylvania, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, isn’t unique.

At least 20 percent — one out of every five — of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have post-traumatic stress and/?or depression. That’s nearly 300,000 veterans, according to recent studies conducted by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the RAND Center for Military Health Policy Research.

That number is even higher when traumatic brain injury is included.

Suicide among U.S. troops overall is up, averaging nearly one per day, the highest rate since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began a decade ago, according to the military studies.

“The good news is that there is good treatment for them,” said Sheila A.M. Rauch, director of the Serving Returning Veterans’ Mental Health Program for the Department of Veterans Affairs Ann Arbor Healthcare System. “The problem is great, [but] with weekly treatment we can see a significant reduction in problems.” 

Help for veterans

One of the biggest challenges is getting those services to veterans, Ms. Rauch said. Many veterans and their families still don’t understand what post-traumatic stress disorder is and don’t know where to seek help, especially if they live in smaller communities that don’t have large veterans administration centers.

In the last five to seven years, the Department of Veterans Affairs has put a greater emphasis on reaching out into communities and sharing that information with veterans, she said.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a result of exposure to life-threatening situations, explained Ms. Rauch, a clinical research psychologist who specializes in treating veterans for such issues.

As a result, the memory of that traumatic situation “gets stuck” in a person’s brain, and they will physically and mentally do anything they can to try to avoid anything they relate to those situations, Ms. Rauch said.

A traumatic brain injury is a medical condition that the military is just beginning to recognize. The injuries can be caused by a hard strike to the head, or even repercussions caused by bombs exploding or guns firing, according to many medical experts.

“Brain injuries are a touchy area,” Ms. Rauch said. “There’s a lot more questions than answers. We’re still trying to figure out how they get it and how to address it. We believe over the long haul most people will be fine.”

According to Ms. Rauch, 19 percent of veterans may have traumatic brain injury. Seven percent have both post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. 

The Arms Forces

Pam Hays, founder of the Arms Forces, a nonprofit organization that works with veterans suffering from traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress, said that for years the military has been mistakenly classifying brain injuries as traumatic stress. There are several reasons for this, she said.

“It’s easier to diagnose post-traumatic stress,” Ms. Hays said. “PTS is also cheaper to treat than traumatic brain injuries.”

The Arms Forces, which is based in Maumee, was established in 2009. The organization is not associated with the military, although Veterans Affairs sometimes requests her help on more challenging cases. She refuses to accept money from the government organization because she believes some of its approaches and treatments are part of the problem.

One of her primary concerns is the lack of compassion veterans receive in therapy. Therapists often focus on the symptoms and not the cause of the problems, she said.

“The most important thing is to let them know you understand,” said Ms. Hays, a traumatic brain injury survivor herself. “It’s about understanding where that person is.”

Many veterans seek help from her organization because they are unhappy or don’t trust Veterans Affairs, she said.

Some veterans feel like they were abandoned, and others are hesitant to seek therapy because “there’s a stigma associated with it,” she said.

There is no one solution for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress or brain injuries, Ms. Rauch and Ms. Hays agreed. Each person’s recovery is different. 

Constant fighting

Mr. Aovad joined the Marine Corps two weeks after graduating from high school; he was 18 years old.

As a youth, Mr. Aovad described himself as very protective and serious in his beliefs.

“No way was I going to live with a war going on,” Mr. Aovad said. “I would have been a coward.”

Corporal Aovad served two tours battling insurgents and protecting Iraqis in the area west of Habbaniyah, in what was known as Operation Rubicon.

“It was a terrorist stronghold,” Mr. Aovad said. “We lost a lot of guys; there was constant fighting the whole tour.”

When he returned to base, the young Marine began to notice changes in his behavior. He was severely depressed, couldn’t sleep, he was consuming unusually large quantities of alcohol — all signs of post-traumatic stress. His initial requests for help were ignored.

He decided not push the issue further. Many of the Marines around him were being kept heavily medicated for treatment of their post-traumatic stress, he said. The medication seemed to be making some of them behave worse.

“I was watching a lot of people; seeing people killing themselves,” Mr. Aovad said. “Others were walking around like zombies because of their medication.”

He began to use marijuana, the only thing that seemed to bring him temporary peace.

A couple of weeks before his scheduled military discharge in 2009, he failed a surprise drug test. Initially, he was discharged without honors — his penalty for failing the test.

After his release, he appealed. In late 2010, the military determined that his plea for help had been ignored and his status was retroactively changed to honorable discharge.

The problem for Mr. Aovad and other veterans who find themselves in similar situations is that treatment of post-traumatic stress and other medical conditions is often free if you’ve received an honorable discharge.

He tried battling his personal demons alone. He bounced from job to job and his friends and family avoided him. He was angry, confused, and bitter, and wanted nothing to do with Veterans Affairs.

“I felt out of place,” said Mr. Aovad, whose wife, Brooke, gave birth to their first child 10 days after his discharge. “I felt misunderstood. I had all this talent, but no place to use them.

“It was all a waste of time. One day we’re welcomed back home with a big party and then they just ignore us.” 

Getting help

Mr. Aovad’s worried mother invited her son to lunch one day. She did not mentioned that she had also invited Pam Hays of the Arms Forces. Her son was furious at first.

Mr. Aovad accused Ms. Hays of thinking he “was crazy,” stupid, and lazy.

Instead, Ms. Hays told him that she thought he was very intelligent and was capable of accomplishing many things, including gaining control over his post-traumatic stress. She offered him a hug and asked him if he would consider serving on her organization’s board.

“She was the first person who believed in me since I’d been back,” Mr. Aovad recalls. “I didn’t even believe in me at that point.”

Inspired by Ms. Hays, he designed a plan to regain his self-confidence.

He starts each morning by writing self-affirming messages in a notebook: “I’m happy. I’m fine. I feel good today.”

Admittedly, he felt “silly” at first as he wrote the words. After a few weeks he began to look forward to each morning. After a couple of months he started to believe the words he was writing.

He also began practicing yoga, which helps him meditate and find peace within.

“I changed my perspective on myself,” he said. “I’m not a crazy veteran. I’m someone who served his country. I’m honorable.”

Contact Federico Martinez at: fmartinez@theblade.com or 419-724-6154.

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