'I just needed help': Airmen with PTSD on Holloman Air Force Base find help, new coping tools
By NICOLE MAXWELL | Alamogordo Daily News, N.M. | Published: December 3, 2019
HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE — Mathew Buzzard was stationed at Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany with the 701st Munitions Support Squadron four years ago when he experienced a triggering event.
"Up to that point in time, I had everything together. I won an award at the wing level, was on a straight-track to senior master sergeant," Buzzard said.
He had been living with depression for a while. After receiving the award, Buzzard said he realized "that there was nothing I could do to stop this mental illness."
"It came to a point where I just needed help," Buzzard said. "I thought that (asking for help) would be embarrassing. I was pretty sure it was going to stop my career despite leadership telling me that it would not jeopardize my career."
Buzzard said by then, he had begun to contemplate suicide.
"At that point, I was very skeptical of how I could get help," Buzzard said.
He met with a mental health specialist on a Friday. The following Monday he was escorted by his supervisor and first sergeant to where "they were pretty certain I needed to be hospitalized," Buzzard said.
Buzzard was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and has been under military care for the condition for five years, he said.
Despite his fear, Buzzard's career was not affected by the hospitalization, however, he could not hold a position requiring a personal reliability program, meaning he could not handle nuclear weapons, chemical weapons or biological weapons.
He moved to another location due to the constraints, and ended up at Holloman Air Force Base where he has has only had good experiences even when things got tough, Buzzard said.
Buzzard has been stationed at HAFB for three years.
Buzzard is still in the Air Force and in recovery with the help of his medical team and service dog Lexi.
Care beyond duty: The Air Force Wounded Warrior program
Buzzard is an Air Force Wounder Warrior (AFW2) ambassador.
"If it wasn't for (Air Force Wounded Warriors), I don't know if I could have made it this far," Buzzard said.
Tamara Ransom serves as the recovery care coordinator at HAFB.
"AFW2 is designed to provide compassionate support on an individual basis to ensure that the Air Force does not forget the human aspect of taking care of their Airmen," Ransom said.
Anyone can refer anyone to the AFW2 program, Ransom said.
"To me, it doesn't matter if they're PTSD or bipolar or whatever it is. I'm there to assist everybody in the same manner," Ransom said.
To qualify for Air Force Wounded Warriors the person must be:
- Very seriously wounded, ill or injured on the casualty report by the Department of Defense’s Medical Authority.
- Airmen with highly complex medical conditions (service connected or in-the-line of duty) confirmed by a medical authority.
- Airmen diagnosed with service connected or in-the-line of duty post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, Military Sexual Trauma (verified by medical authority) and are under consideration or referred to Medical Evaluation Board.
- Airmen in training status (including Basic Military Training), separated with complex medical conditions on a case-by-case basis.
- Purple Heart recipients.
Holloman Air Force Base and mental health
Capt. Erik Steidley is a nurse practitioner at the mental health clinic on HAFB.
Steidley prescribes medications and does psychotherapy.
"Speaking more broadly on how the military approach is to mental illness and PTSD specifically," Steidley said. "We utilize different therapies and treatments that are shown to rehabilitate and not just attempt to manage symptoms but actually to overcome. That's the goal at least."
Different diagnoses are treated differently, Steidley said.
The two therapies that Steidley and the HAFB mental health clinic use are cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, and dialectical behavior therapy, or DBT.
CBT is a form of therapy that focuses on changing behaviors that may be behind a patient's difficulties.
Whereas, DBT is a modified version of CBT that focuses on regulating emotions, developing healthy ways to cope with stress and mindfulness.
Right now, all HAFB mental health clinicians are trained in prolonged exposure, Steidley said.
Prolonged exposure therapy is a type of CBT that was designed for PTSD patients. It teaches patients to approach trauma-related feelings or memories gradually as a means of overcoming the initial traumatic experience.
"It's a lot easier for someone to manage it in a safe clinical setting than when going about their day," Steidley said.
Those living with PTSD and other behavioral health issues have found novel ways to cope: video and role playing games.
"It helps your brain to detach, I guess, from the trigger," Buzzard said.
However, PTSD is about more than triggers, Buzzard said.
"It is the physiological part of your body is in this constant state of defense, for me anyways," Buzzard said. "When I have too much (stuff) going on in my mind, I go to my video game... It helps me to disconnect from that and I can actually breathe a little better when I'm done."
Steidley praised the proliferation of technology for being able to help patients.
"Technology has brought with it some amazing new opportunities and options," Steidley said. "A lot of my patients do participate in things like video games and it can be a very helpful tool at times."
But gaming can be a double-edged sword. A patient can use the games to replace the environment around them, Steidley said.
"Some people get too far inside and then we're finding ways how to help them with their video games. For that reason I always recommend not to use it to replace other treatments or other care. But just as a potential tool that might help better enable someone to overcome those really rough points," Steidley said.
A gaming group was started in Alamogordo earlier this year called Stack Up Alamogordo that helps service members and veterans with socialization through monthly gaming events.
Playing games, eating with Stack Up Alamogordo
Kids Kingdom was not just a place for children to play on the afternoon of Sunday, Sept. 22.
The Stack Up Alamogordo group held a barbecue and played games including "Flickin' Chicken" and the role playing game "Last Night on Earth:The Zombie Game."
Originally the barbecue was set for Sept. 21 but organizers did not want to compete with the Otero County Fair.
One of the players was Kenya Robinette, a sensor operator and instructor for remotely piloted aircraft on Holloman Air Force Base.
"It's a lot of fun. I usually go to the board game nights that they have about once a month," Robinette said. "We usually have fairly small groups right now."
Robinette said that this was because the community may not know about the group yet.
She has been a part of the group almost since the beginning, as the organizers are her coworkers: Technical Sgt. Daniel McArdle and Technical Sgt. Theodore Wiseman.
Robinette, Wiseman and McArdle play Dungeons and Dragons on Saturdays.
The Dungeons and Dragons sessions are streamed to Twitch and Stack Up members are invited to attend.
These games last about four or five hours, Robinette said.
"It's more of a socialization for the rest of the Stack Up members while the rest of us are playing the game," Robinette said.
Technical Sgt. Daniel McArdle, a constructor on the remotely piloted aircraft at HAFB, heard about the Stack Up organization near the end of 2018 and found that there was not a Stacks group in New Mexico.
Stack Up is a veterans outreach program that supports veterans through video games and get-togethers called Stacks.
"A 'stack' is a slang term for a formation used in military or law enforcement, when an assault team forms up single file along the entrance or doorway to a room where they believe a threat is located," according to the Stack Up website.
McArdle contacted Stack Up at the end of 2018 to set up a Stack Up group in Alamogordo.
So far, Stack Up Alamogordo has done several Stacks events including the barbecue on Sept. 22.
The Stacks are community outreach groups for veterans, active military and civilians where they all get together and play games including yard games, role playing games and more.
There are 45 Stacks groups worldwide.
"It's just being involved in the community, getting our active military and veterans and civilian supporters out together doing things," McArdle said. "Whether that's a game night or just volunteering."
Stack Up Alamogordo holds gaming events both on Holloman Air Force Base and off-base in Alamogordo on an almost monthly basis.
"We just want to get people out doing things," McArdle said.
The group is also doing volunteer work with The Salvation Army and Habitat for Humanity, Wiseman said.
"Our goal is to get a community group together that encourages a lot of these veterans that don't get out very much, that seclude themselves, and get them out and in the community making friends, just basically having a community group and being a force for good in the town," Wiseman said.