LA CROSSE, Wis. — Army Sgt. Ryan Van De Walker was traumatized from watching friends die in combat, despondent about his future as a civilian and seeking relief in a bottle.
Van De Walker, 34, of La Crosse, served in the Wisconsin National Guard’s 32nd Infantry Brigade in Afghanistan in 2007 and 2008, in Iraq in 2008 and 2009 and again in Iraq as a medic in 2009 and 2010.
“When I came back, I felt real isolated from the world,” said Van De Walker, who has a Bronze Star and other medals and commendations. “The only place I felt safe was with soldiers. Something changed in Afghanistan.”
Beset with nightmares and migraines, Van De Walker drank to cope with stress. He hit bottom one night in July. Police say Van De Walker shoved a loaded handgun into a man’s mouth during an argument downtown.
Officers found a .40-caliber pistol in Van De Walker’s waistband, reports stated. He smelled like alcohol and refused to speak to police without an attorney.
Today, Van De Walker lives at the VA Medical Center in Tomah, where he is undergoing inpatient treatment for PTSD and related problems. He declined comment on his criminal case because it is pending in court.
“I’m a decorated soldier,” he said, “but I’m as vulnerable as a rape victim.”
Mental health issues are expected to worsen as the war in Afghanistan unwinds and increasing numbers of veterans merge back into civilian life.
“A lot come back really changed from the experience and then have trouble trying to reintegrate into their families and finding a job,” said Dr. David Houlihan, chief of staff at the VA Medical Center in Tomah. “They feel hopeless.
“One of my veterans says, ’When you take a life, that life takes a part of your life,’” Houlihan said.
For Van De Walker, the trouble started almost immediately upon his return.
In the military, “I had purpose and mission. Once it was no longer there, I was mentally beating myself up,” said Van De Walker
At the Army’s behest, he sought help at the VA Medical Center in Tomah in 2010. He acknowledges now that he didn’t follow his outpatient treatment regimen at that time.
Initially, he refused to acknowledge his stifled emotions because his Army training had left him believing “I could handle anything.”
But flashbacks haunted him. “Not everybody made it home. That is my trauma — watching people die.
“You’ve spent every waking moment with a guy, and all of a sudden, he’s gone,” he said. “The fact that you can’t grieve, that you have to stay with the mission, you keep everything bottled up.”
Because of that comfort level in the service, and having grown up in a military family, Van De Walker wanted to stay in the Army. But he is in the process of accepting retirement on a medical discharge.
“I realize now it’s the healthiest thing for me,” he said.
Van De Walker’s treatment, which includes individual and group therapy, is changing his life.
“The treatment here is phenomenal,” he said. “They are trying to help soldiers reconnect with their civilian side.
“After years of hiding problems, I am building a support network of people and going over the traumas I’ve experienced to get to the root of the emotional side of my traumas,” he said.
He’s also stopped drinking, he said.
Van De Walker credits Houlihan, the medical center’s chief of staff, as the key player in his recovery.
“Once I built trust in Dr. Houlihan, I opened up to him,” he said.
As Van De Walker’s trust in Houlihan grew, he said he was able to start trusting other members of the recovery team.
“For me, the change is enormous. Talking about it is a tremendous relief,” he said. “I’ve learned to trust again, and be vulnerable, because people are listening to me.”
‘I don’t want to let my PTSD be my identity’
Among those listening is Jim Nesbitt of La Crosse, a 69-year-old Navy veteran who works with Van De Walker through the La Crosse Area Veterans Mentor Program. The program provides support for veterans with legal, mental health and emotional problems.
“He’s cleaning up his act in Tomah,” said Nesbitt, a retired teacher and former associate principal at Central High School. “There are good programs there to help him out, and he’s making a real good effort.”
A big part of Van De Walker’s recovery regimen is the VA center’s pilot program allowing his service dog to live with him in the facility. He rescued the dog, called Mama, in Afghanistan, and she was trained to be his service dog at Paws 4 Independence in Caledonia, Minn.
“My service dog has been so influential,” he said. “I no longer have to take meds like I used to. She relieves my anxiety and wakes me up when I have nightmares.”
Mama also has opened a volunteer job option for Van De Walker, training service dogs for other veterans and working with them at the VA center.
Marcie Jenson, founder of Paws 4 Independence who trained Mama, said, “Ryan’s an awesome guy. I’m going to start training him the way I learned 20 years ago. Training dogs will be part of his aftercare.
“A lot of the vets have PTSD or anxiety,” she said. “The dog is in tune with the psychological part of it and can feel the anxiety.”
Van De Walker hopes to be discharged from his inpatient treatment in June. He said he is intent on turning his life around and committed to not letting his disease control his life.
“I decided I didn’t want to be the crazy veteran,” he said. “I wanted to get integrated back into the community and be active and do something positive.
“For the first time in a long time, I’ve got faith in my future.”