Returning from war can be a minefield for veterans
Times-Herald, Vallejo, Calif.
It's often called the war at home — the battles veterans face after they return from fighting overseas only to find a nameless, faceless enemy has moved onto their home turf.
Jeremy Profitt of Fairfield is one veteran of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who faced his PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) and is winning the battle, though recovery has been anything but easy.
Profitt is just one of millions of American veterans who have returned from battle to encounter a different, more subtle and even more dangerous sort on their own turf.
Recognizing the problems some veterans face in simply accessing their Department of Veterans Affairs benefits, several of these veterans are guiding the way and also calling for better outreach and education.
Finding the path
"There's a lot of resources out there for veterans but they don't hear about them. The VA does not advertise all the benefits that are available," said Clyde Gambles, a retired U.S. Army first sergeant. Gambles founded the U.S. Military Veteran Family Resource Center in Vallejo to help vets and their families.
Profitt is doing well, but that is not the case with many. Profitt said two soldiers he served with have committed suicide after trying to get help, off and on, after returning to civilian life.
Other veterans have refused help, don't know how to get it, or fail to recognize or admit they even need it.
Then, there are veterans so anxious to leave the service they never contact the VA for post-war assistance. Or, several said, they become paranoid about what might happen to them if they reenter the military system.
As a result thousands end up homeless. Or they turn to escapes from drinking and drugs, or take risks, get into legal entanglements and even wind up behind bars.
Profitt came back to Fairfield fighting the shadows, and trying to cope with explosive anger and mental anxieties.
"I felt alone and isolated. I had a hard time relating to people," Profitt said in a Times-Herald interview.
A military police officer among the first to be deployed to Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Profitt said he returned home only to be sent to Iraq a few months later.
Profitt said he saw things no one should see, and came home a far different man.
But not so different than other veterans. Nearly one-third of those who served in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars suffer from PTSD, according to Veterans Affairs.
Veterans often try cope with PTSD by living reclusive lives rather than confronting their problemn. That only exacerbates the condition, because what they really need to do is go out into the world, Profitt and others said.
Repeated deployments, sustained exposure to combat stress and long periods from home have produced unseen wounds to both soldiers and their families that lead to greater problems, experts say.
More help to get help
The numbers fighting PTSD are likely much higher because only those who have sought help are counted, according to a Congressional Research Service.
But the numbers who aren't still tell a tragic story.
Some 22 U.S. veterans are committing suicide every day -- an increase from 20 per day over the previous decade, a VA study reported.
More than two million military service members are home now after fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and there are even more veterans from Vietnam, Korea and World War II, some who have never secured benefits.
Congressmen and others have called on the VA to deal more effectively with the backlog of health benefit claims, and also to do a better job of educating veterans on available services and benefits. A bill introduced by Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, and a Vietnam veteran, would require the VA to make regular progress reports.
Some veterans service organizations say local vet offices and the VA, in general, are overwhelmed by returning military personnel.
While the numbers are growing, Solano County Veterans Service Office Director Ted Puntillo believes the VA is doing a good job getting the word out about benefits.
Outreach efforts improve
Puntillo said he sees between 40 and 50 veterans a day come to the county office and many are getting better.
Gambles, meanwhile, said the demand for help is likely to grow as more soldiers return from the Middle East, and Vietnam veterans finally seek long overdue help.
Nearly 120 veterans come through Gambles' door each week grateful to find someone who can steer them in the right direction.
"If it wasn't for (Gambles) I'd be living in a cardboard box or I'd be dead," said Vallejo Vietnam War veteran Ralph Finley. He said has struggled with PTSD since he coming home from Southeast Asia nearly 40 years ago. He drove an ammunition truck and conducted sweeps and patrols in Vietnam for one year.
"I honestly thought I'd be over the effects of that war in three years, but I'm still fighting the same war every night," Finley said. He now receives disability benefits and has full medical coverage.
Some veterans don't seek help until a crisis forces them to admit they need it, or a spouse or other loved forces the issue, experts said.
Overcoming the stigma
Often admitting they need help is difficult, as there's a stigma attached to appearing weak or vulnerable, Gambles and others said.
Gambles said he was compelled to offerhelp after seeing numerous homeless veterans begging for spare change.
"It's shameful to have to serve your nation and then come home and see veterans sitting on a sidewalk with a sign or going off to jail," Gambles said.
Homelessness, PTSD, abuse and financial difficulties are some of the more prevalent problems veterans face, he said. Difficulties in family relationships, including abuse, also rise to the surface, he said.
Locally, some veterans sleep in graveyards because they feel "it's the safest place for them to stay," Gambles added.
Gambles said he talked one man out of killing himself, got him counseling and health benefits so he would have hope again.
Other problems persist
Mental health problems are not the only issues veterans face.
Legions of veterans of all wars suffer from hearing loss or constant ringing in the ears (tinnitus) due to explosions near them, Puntillo said.
Vietnam -era veterans can often trace their health problems to the prevalent use of Agent Orange, a chemical defoliant which has caused a host of ailments, he added.
Gambles said he suffers from constant pain due to severe frostbite from head to toe while training in Germany in the 1970s.
Helping other vets, he said, helps take his mind off his discomfort. Among the more common questions he receives are from veterans' spouses about burial benefits, he said.
Can't turn it off
For veterans, navigating civilian life can be a nightmare and some prefer redeployment into combat, several said. Ordinary things, such as driving on the freeway or hearing a car backfire, can trigger anxiety attacks, flashbacks or waves of uncontrollable feelings.
Sometimes, returning veterans feel as if they have no purpose and are discouraged by lack of job opportunities.
"When they were in war they were always on alert, always on the look-out," American Canyon Troop Support Founder Sindy Biederman said. "Even though they are done and they have come home it doesn't go away."
Profitt's mother, Biederman said she was unsure how to help her son, but felt hopeful after reading "Courage After Fire," a book about coping strategies for returning troops. She read it and then gave it to him.
Two years after he returned, Profitt sought help. He is now pursuing a college degree, works full-time, is married and has three young children. He said it is possible to manage and cope with PTSD through support groups, cognitive therapy, medication and other methods.
Writing about his experience helped him, and he now wants to help other veterans.
New resource center
One way will be through Biederman's effort to set up a resource center inside American Canyon City Hall, open one day a week.
It should as easy for veterans to secure benefits as it is for recruiters to solicit them into military service in the first place, Biederman said.
"If anyone can find military recruiters where ever they go, then veterans should not have any difficulties finding the services they need once they get home," Biederman said.
A case in point, is that some local veterans are unaware of the Mare Island Outpatient Clinic, which offers many physical and mental health services, Biederman said.
From his office on Tennessee Street, Gambles said entire communities, including churches, schools, counselors and hospital personnel, need to be aware of veterans issues.
That process, he said, often begins with family members who need to learn about what returning veterans are going through, and what they were exposed to overseas.
Of the younger Afghanistan and Iraq veterans, Vietnam War veteran Finley said family members and others have "no idea the damages these fellows are going through."
He added he hopes more is done for them so they do not suffer as long as he has.
VA more proactive
But, Puntillo, a Vietnam War veteran himself, said things have changed since he came home from war.
"Back when I was in, during the Vietnam War, the VA wasn't that proactive," Puntillo said. "Honestly, it wasn't as good as it is now. Now, they welcome you and try to get you to come in," he added.
Likewise, Doug Bragg, director of the regional VA health office in Oakland, said veterans can access a wide array of benefits, including vocational rehabilitation, education, employment training and health benefits. He said veterans can easily access information online by going to www.va.gov and can even fill out applications online.
Working directly with the veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, VA transitional patient advocate Marcoa Najera said a lot of effort goes into assuring returning military personnel know what resources are available to them.
He said a lot of help is available.
Besides the clinic on Mare Island, the VA's Northern California division runs facilities in Fairfield, Chico, Martinez, McClellan, Oakland, Yreka and Yuba City. There are no clinics in Napa County, however.
Undoubtedly some veterans are not facing hardships coping with the transition to civilian life, but clinical psychologist Jerry Boriskin at the Mare Island Outpatient Clinic warned that denial can be strong.
Effects of PTSD can begin the day after a soldier returns, or years later.
The cure is not simple, he said.
"We need to focus on whole person and we work as a team to deal with consequences and try to help veterans regain their footing in returning. It takes a lot of work and a lot of enlightenment," he said
Sarah Rohrs firstname.lastname@example.org or (707) 553-6832