Generations of PTSD: Veterans cope in different ways
By ZACK ORSBORN | Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal | Published: October 15, 2016
SHANNON, Miss. (AP) — Deep in the mountains of Afghanistan, Jamie Locastro heard the sharp patter of bullets raining above him in the Korengal Valley.
A month earlier, Jamie trained with his 120-man brigade, getting used to the humidity and 120-degree weather. He joined the infantry to be like his father, Tommy.
His brother, Gabriel, enlisted with the infantry six months before him and had been deployed to Iraq near the same time.
He and his comrades were excited after finishing a mission, called Mountain Lion, but once they reached the Korengal Valley — which had only one way in, one way out — the exhilaration turned to terror.
Jamie ducked and fell to the ground as the bullets whizzed past him, kicking up sand.
Blinded by shock, Jamie disregarded that he had been shot five times, three times in the arm, twice in the leg. He didn't notice the blood dripping down his arm as his comrades began dropping around him.
He jumped up, ran over to the medic to get his hand wrapped and began firing blindly at the mountains, cursing and screaming.
"I went crazy," he said. "I lost control."
Once he got back to a hospital in New York, Jamie was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder immediately. The doctors told him he had a "severe case," while he babbled about "off the wall stuff."
His father had been diagnosed with PTSD after being shot three times in back-to-back tours in Vietnam. While Gabriel was in Iraq, he was wounded, and would later be diagnosed with PTSD as well.
According to ptsdusa.org, one in three returning troops are diagnosed with serious post-traumatic stress symptoms. A study from the National Comorbidity Survey showed that PTSD was significantly associated with suicidal ideation or attempt.
Between 1999 and 2010, roughly 22 veterans were committing suicide per day, one every 65 minutes — a statistic important not to forget during National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month.
"We all have our own problems," Jamie said. "We're all messed up in some way. People cope with PTSD in all kinds of different ways."
James V. Coniglio, psychotherapist and program director for the Mississippi State Hospital, served as an intelligence officer in the Vietnam War.
Ambushed twice and wounded once, visions pop in his head of things he witnessed: mutilated bodies, helicopters lifting dead soldiers, the smell of war and smoke.
For a period, the backfire of a car would freeze him.
"But I can't claim I saw or did what some veterans with PTSD have seen," he said. "I was able to be able. I do avoid military bases. Those things are there, but I keep myself active."
Coniglio occasionally treats veterans with PTSD. One veteran, witnessing a traumatic experience in Vietnam, came back home and couldn't control his emotions. He wouldn't leave the house, which was deteriorating around him.
The veteran went through a period of avoidance as he yearned to be back with his comrades.
"You have what's called unit cohesion which becomes a very close group of brothers that depend on each other for life," Coniglio said. "You talk to some of these PTSD patients and even though they went through hell, they'd go back tomorrow because they miss that cohesiveness within that group of people."
A lot of the patients Coniglio saw ended up getting divorces. The divorce rate among both officers and enlisted men and women during 2014 was 3.1 percent, according to Pentagon officials. The rate has steadily declined since 2011.
He can often tell the difference in a veteran with PTSD and a veteran claiming to have PTSD. It's the emotion behind their eyes. Their war experiences become the most important part of their life.
The most valuable thing a veteran can do, he said, is to move their mind away from their war experience.
"I always work on their choice to not dwell on it," he said. "I call it munching. You have to get them to see there are more important things in life. But you'd be surprised that there's a resistance to that."
Sitting on a leather couch in his home in Shannon, Tommy Locastro ashes a cigarette into a silver cup. His sons, Jamie and Gabriel, sit next to him as they recount their times in the service.
They tell stories of meeting high-ranking officials, laughing with their comrades and being shot.
Among the three veterans, they have five Purple Hearts and three cases of PTSD.
The brothers get anxious in crowded places. They'd rather be on the couch surrounded by family watching television. Gabriel shudders at the thought of going to the mall.
After Jamie was diagnosed with PTSD, he lived in New York when his darkness settled in. All around, his comrades were dabbling in drugs and alcohol. Most of them drank to cope with the triggered visions and the sound of gunfire in the back of their heads.
Jamie became intensely paranoid on top of being diagnosed with depression and anxiety.
When they are all together, the mixture of their anxieties can cause friction, but all they have to do is separate for a few moments, and they are back in front of the television together.
The family of veterans began attending sessions at the VA Clinic in Tupelo, meeting with psychiatrists to learn how to cope with PTSD.
Tommy copes with the diagnosis by staying active.
"Some guys can't get it out of their minds," Tommy said. "I had one friend that committed suicide in the VA Hospital in San Francisco. He had been dealing with that issue for years. He couldn't sleep right."
A couple weeks ago, Gabriel's comrade killed himself.
"You can't forget about the rising suicide rates in veterans," Tommy said. "I think the biggest thing is family support. The VA should address that and set up a system to help these kids when they separate from the service."
But after everything — all three getting divorces, getting ambushed, dealing with the lingering effects of war — they all agreed they'd do it again.
"I'd do it in a heartbeat," Jamie said.