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Experts discuss helping veterans manage PTSD

By SAMANTHA MADISON | The (Carlisle, Pa.) Sentinel | Published: November 19, 2014

CARLISLE, Pa. (Tribune News Service) — There are explosions everywhere — suicide bombers blowing up restaurants and markets, people being killed left and right.

You recognize the safest areas versus the ones that are dangerous, to sit in the right place when out in the open. You know how to cope, to work on as little sleep as humanly possible for fear of being next. You are never truly relaxed or safe, and that becomes your way of life.

Then, all of a sudden, you’re back in the safety of the United States, and family, friends and society expect that you’ll ease back into the swing of things as if you weren’t just in a country where people were constantly trying to kill you and your comrades.

“When you come home, the part of your brain that kicks off the panic button doesn’t know you’re home,” said David Wood, senior military correspondent for The Huffington Post. “The way I understand it, the way I’ve thought about it and the way guys have explained to me is, when that happens, you’ve got to burn off energy, so people get angry, they punch walls; they’ve got to burn off all of that adrenaline.”

Wood, who spoke on a post-traumatic stress disorder panel at Dickinson College on Veterans Day, has spent a large portion of his career covering a variety of military and national security issues in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Soviet Russia, Cold War Germany and Somalia.

Wood also has been embedded in several military units in combat zones and has been able to witness the effects the increased stress can have on combat soldiers. It’s hard to digest that killing someone is actually approved by the government in these situations, he explained, but then a soldier comes home and has to deal with what he or she has done by the American moral code and not the one that was in place overseas. It can be confusing.

“How does that good person who went off to war and did a bad thing (think of himself)?” he said. “We don’t tell people that bad things are going to happen. We don’t even tell ourselves. ... On this Veterans Day, I hope we can say to ourselves, ‘You know, war is bad. Sometimes we’ve got to do it, I get that, but war does bad things to people.’ We need to be honest about that, and then we need to listen to our veterans to find a way to listen to their stories in a validated way.”

The transition back to civilian life can be made, but it’s not easy. It’s not without the potential for stress, nightmares and flashbacks. This is typically diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Craig Williamson, a retired Vietnam veteran, is one of the many members of the military to have PTSD. According to the national center for PTSD, about 5.2 million people have the disorder in any given year. Williamson said he has been struggling with it for about 40 years now, which is what encouraged him to start a support group in the Midstate.

“I’ve been through just about every treatment in the world, inside and out of the VA system,” he said in a previous article in The Sentinel. “It never felt like the VA was very effective. It seems like by the time (veterans) get through the system, these guys are so far gone they can’t be helped.”

The group, which he started in 2013, uses holistic techniques to treat the root cause of PTSD symptoms instead of medicines and counseling, which he said doesn’t work for everyone.

Williamson agreed that combat veterans struggle with an inability to reprogram themselves for civilian life, admitting that the VA “is very limited in what it can do to treat these individuals.”

“You are programmed for violence, and all of a sudden, it’s like, what do you do now,” he said. “You have to change your energy totally, and that’s (what) these kids have problems with.”

Kimberly Dozier, the 2014-15 Omar N. Bradley Chair at Dickinson College and former foreign correspondent for CBS News and other organizations, said she had herself trained to sit behind columns in public places, so if a bomb went off, she was protected. Dozier’s protocols allowed her to feel more in control in the chaos of the war zones she was covering.

When her crew accidentally walked into the path of a car bomb in Baghdad in 2006, Dozier was the sole survivor. She was injured, scared and confused as to why she was the one to live. Had she not been vocal about her need to talk about what happened and her desire to stop being scared, Dozier may have developed PTSD.

Dozier said as hard as she worked to get better, talking about the incident, feeling guilt and blaming herself and enduring the anger of the families of everyone else that died — nothing was as hard as being seen as injured when she was finally in an OK place.

“What I found was I needed to have this illusion of control by figuring out exactly what happened,” Dozier said. “The hardest part of all of this was coming out of it to find out no matter how far along I was, that the American public that I met on the street when I got out of the hospital would not let me out of the injury box. Everyone thought I was a walking PTSD time bomb because of what they had seen (on TV and in the media). ... Part of that is it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, if you are experiencing symptoms of post traumatic stress and you’re not an obnoxious, over-talkative news reporter in her 40s from the Oprah generation, are you going to seek help like I did? Are you going to fight through that wall? So that’s what I’m worried about.”

Combating the stigma

Not everyone seeks help like Dozier did, which can make the adjustment back to civilian life more of a struggle for those who are experiencing the symptoms of PTSD.

Col. Rebecca Porter, the commander of the Army Health Clinic at the Carlisle Barracks, said at the panel last week that 80 percent of those treated for PTSD do recover fully. And 5 to 10 percent of those coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan are being diagnosed with the disorder.

Porter, who is a board-certified clinical health psychologist, said the Army clinic is using a number of ways to help treat PTSD. The Army is embedding behavioral health teams with combat teams, and there are clinics that are special to treating PTSD so that the veteran or active soldier can go right to those clinics with no referral, Porter said.

While those are helpful ways to treat the disorder, Porter said, there is still a long way to go to get rid of the stigma that revolves around combat soldiers that receive a PTSD diagnosis.

“We’ve had several leaders in the Army that have said ‘I have post traumatic stress disorder,’” she said. “I’ve been at several at different treatment facilities where even general officers would come in and say ‘I don’t want special treatment, I want to sit in the waiting room so that everyone can see that having some part of an impact from being in combat is not dependent on your rank.’ So I think that’s helping a lot, but we still have a ways to go.”

Dozier, brought up the issue that some soldiers may feel that seeking help could jeopardize a future promotion or the rest of their career. Wood agreed, saying he has heard many servicemen and women express concern over their future once they receive a PTSD diagnosis.

“There are still whispers,” Dozier said. “There becomes an issue where if we don’t promote them now that they have admitted to having this issue, if we don’t promote them for some other reason, everyone is going to think it’s because of that stigma.

“Certainly, there is ... the fear that if they go seek help it will impact their career,” Wood added. “It’s a continued struggle.”

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©2014 The Sentinel (Carlisle, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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