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Florida Marine veteran, pastor starts PTSD support group

By COLLIN BREAUX | The News Herald (Tribune News Service) | Published: March 7, 2017

PANAMA CITY, Fla. — Since January, three of Clayton Lassiter's buddies from his military command have killed themselves.

Having served with the Marine Corps during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Lassiter has dealt with his own struggles. He's had nightmares, flashbacks and used to have trouble being in unfamiliar environments. His wife, children and spiritual life helped him keep focus and avoid taking drugs or drinking excessively like other veterans, he said.

Those were symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), with which Lassiter was diagnosed with in 2015. Because of his experiences he decided to start up a local PTSD support group for veterans, their spouses and families, which will partner with other groups.

"I started it out of necessity," said Lassiter, who is also a pastor at City Lights Church in Panama City. "I've had other pastors call me asking what to do about the veterans in their congregations. 'How do I minister to them?' "

Meeting times and places still have yet to hashed out, but one sure spot is his church, which has gotten off the ground in the past few months. Lassiter said City Lights already has helped out several veterans and he's also been spreading the word throughout the military community.

The group will partner with counselors and encourage veterans to come together and be a part of the community, said Lassiter.

"Our goal is to help people become whole again," Lassiter said.

Traumatic triggers

PTSD happens when people are exposed to traumatic events that stick with the person, said Dale Heppe, a Gulf War veteran who served in the Air Force and is now a mental health counselor with A Peace of Mind Therapy in Panama City. It can manifest and be triggered after a veteran returns to civilian life, Heppe said.

"They may see fireworks, which triggers it," Heppe said. "I had (a veteran patient) down in Pier Park for New Year's Eve; the fireworks started that."

Getting those veterans to come out the shadows can be a challenge since the military hasn't always acknowledged mental health issues, Lassiter said.

"They put a stigma on PTSD and have softened their stance in the past several years," he said. "It was something that you wanted to hide and suffer in silence with."

Lassiter expects to break that silence with a group that will start small and eventually grow into something bigger.

Heppe said he supports the idea behind the group. Out of the 35 patients he sees on average in a week, five or six tend to be veterans who sometimes don't like talking to people who haven't served. Other barriers they encounter include feeling like no one understands what they're going through when they come home, Heppe said.

It's a good idea for veterans to help each other considering their high suicide rate and the VA being overwhelmed, Heppe said.

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©2017 The News Herald (Panama City, Fla.)
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