Making peace with the war inside
Local group helps veterans cope with PTSD
By Lailani Upham
The Eagle Circle CSKT Veterans Monument built in 2010 to honor veterans of the past and present, where Vincent Curley’s name has been engraved. Curley is a marine veteran who served in the Iraq. (Lailani Upham photo)
PABLO — War veterans without a doubt pay the cost for freedom, whether it is with their life, or a downward indescribable spiral into depression and substance abuse from the mental trauma of combat.
The robbing of life does not halt after the warzone – suicide is another reality a war veteran may face.
Huffington Post reported recently in an article on March 13, that the shock of war, of course, is hardly new.
However, the current flow of combat veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are forcing mental health practitioners to a new recognition that the effects of combat trauma extend far beyond the traditional and narrow clinical diagnoses of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI).
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, almost a quarter million Iraq or Afghanistan vets have been diagnosed with mental health injuries from combat service. Several vets are not diagnosed, yet go on with their lives while experiencing short-term memory loss, headaches, insomnia, anger or numbness — conditions that can range from merely annoying to highly disruptive on the job and within the family.
Vincent Curley, a Marine veteran, who served in Iraq and was on active duty from 2001 – 2005 and National Guard duty from 2005 – 2008, did not start to notice the PTSD until two years after striving to adjust to civilian life.
Curley said he turned to drinking heavily and his life started falling apart.
According to a Veterans Affairs report, for some vets, hard work can temporarily mask the symptoms – but this is only temporary. The painful past and trauma creep in and when it hits it’s another world – literally.
Many re-live the accounts of combat when a loud noise erupts or habitual behavior kicks in from time to time to 'scan the perimeter for enemy activity.' Curley said these experiences are real. “I was always scanning for snipers. That’s just the way it is,” he explained.
Curley explained that there were times he would “check out” from the smell of diesel, sound of helicopters or the mere sound of yelling.
“Checking out” is re-living the combat survival.
“A lot of us have anger issues, grief of a terrorist killing our buddy over a radical reason,” Curley said.
It’s been a couple years since Curley, a 1999 Two Eagle River School graduate, reached out for help at the Kalispell Regional Veterans Health facility, in which Curley says it saved his life.
“When I walked in (VA Health) I was jumpy, scanning, uptight and paranoid. I was in constant fear of death.”
“Today I am aware of what’s going on with me and can identify the differences in the triggers and having self-awareness,” Curley added.
However, Curley says when he first contacted the VA he had to bust through the “Superman complex” that many veterans carry.
“As an Indian man I had to break down the barriers,” Curley added. He said it took work to grasp what was happening and learned how to block out a lot of things.
Military personnel are trained to do their mission and not to get emotionally involved – they are pushed to the limits of the “norm” says, Dean Furukawa, CSKT Circle of Trust Mental Health Specialist and SKC Veterans Group facilitator.
So therefore war veterans are pushed to the limit of the after-effects of the trauma longer and deeper than many friends, family and co-workers can see on a daily basis.
How does one explain to a civilian the fierce pride a warrior feels in having to muster the stamina and professional skill and the courage to complete a second or third combat tour in a war that seems to have not a point or end, where the enemy is frustratingly hard to pin down, but the blood and death are immediate?
How do you explain why a combat veteran feels anxious in crowds, or startles at a sharp noise or awakes in night sweats from some horrific dream?
How do you express rage and sorrow of survivor’s guilt – that a medical corpsman could not save a wounded buddy who is like a brother to you, or that a squad leader did not bring his entire guys home safe?
Often times it is more than one buddy.
And how does one share the agony of a Marine platoon leader who is severely injured and medevac’d after an IED blast killed two of his men and abruptly removes him from the men he had vowed to protect?
It’s not the norm to express how you feel as a soldier – but to carry out orders and basically - “be tough.”
Curley said when he first reached out to the VA after people talked to him and guided him to “talk to someone,” he didn’t even think there was anything wrong with him. “But I still checked in and a diagnosis was done,” he admitted. “I started getting something out of them.”
After two years of intense therapy Curley says he is getting on track and has also been sober. He admits he still has his setbacks but he has a map to get through it now.
Curley said now as he looks back on how far he has came he noticed the devastating effect the trauma had on not only his life, but his family. “I would shut down and check out,” he said. He admits he still has a ways to go and occasionally experiences the disturbing influences left by combat on him, however is working each day to reach goals through the life-adjusting tools he is learning along the way.
“I’ve been to hell and back. It is a dark and lonely place,” he describes.
It is not an easy thing for a war veteran to expose what is going on in their minds and life, says Furukawa, but vital for the healing process.
“It has been a struggle to open up and step outside my comfort zone,” Curley added. “But you have to want it and put in the effort.”
Currently he is junior working toward a Bachelors of Science degree in Natural Resources Environmental Science at Salish Kootenai College and travels each week to therapy at the VA.
Marine veteran Vincent Curley name is seen imprinted on the left side of the CSKT Veterans Memorial in tribal office parking lot in Pablo. (Lailani Upham photo)
When veterans return from war, their worlds are completely changed.
From “The Bravest Families in America” on the Oprah Winfrey Show, Veteran and Clinical Director of U.S. Veterans Initiative Bill Wallace says the most important thing you can do for a vet returning home from war is to remember every soldier’s experience is personal and unique.
There is no set answer on how to help.
However, the best way is to be educated. Wallace states, “If the American public can seek out knowledge about veteran specific issues, then they can understand a bit how they can help and who they can reach out to in order to help.”
Wallace advises that showing love and respect is the most powerful thing you can do. “Something as simple as walking up to a service member in an airport or on the streets who is in uniform and thanking them for their service or welcoming them home is so appreciated and helpful,” Wallace says. “It garners trust and lets the service members know that they are not forgotten.”
Also let soldiers know their symptoms are common. Exposing that their issues and feelings are to be expected. They are natural and to let them know that it doesn’t speak to what type of person they are, Wallace adds.
Be aware that a veteran carries feeling of “shame.”
“They come back with guilt about some of the things they had to do or some of the things that they experienced,” Wallace says, “and they don’t know how to let people know about it because they don’t necessarily trust that what they have to talk about or how they’re behaving is well received by others.”
Remember that PTSD happens after the event. “Sometimes the triggering event can be months after you’ve deployed,” says Wallace. “I know for myself, I came back and for the first month I was in a pink cloud. I was just so happy that I was safe and sound and back with my family and back in America. But then, life comes at you and frustrations can build, anger can build, guilt can build, feelings of loss can build, and that’s when you have to address it.”
Another point is that to be aware that war veterans have a hard time trusting others and find a great deal of distrust with anyone who hasn’t experienced what they have experienced, says Wallace and Furukawa says he has recognized this as well.
One thing that has been found helpful says Wallace is a peer group.
Furukawa says it is with this very purpose that the CSKT Circle of Trust has launched a group at SKC for veterans. They meet each Wednesday at noon to 1:30 p.m. at the SKC Bookstore building conference room, and invite all veterans to join, a group that Curley also attends.
One last point is to be aware of things that could trigger a family member veteran or friend by saying “I understand exactly what you mean.”
“They (friends and family) can not understand,” Wallace says.
There are times they (vets) get resentful when they get asked questions about it (combat) as well, explains Furukawa.
U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki stated in a speech last June at the Department of Defense-VA Suicide Prevention Conference in D.C. that their efforts must focus on both aggressive outreach to veterans and families and provision of high-quality, cutting-edge mental health treatments to those in need, by “Not waiting for them to find us or to decide they need help, but pushing the availability and quality of our programs. We do this best with warm handoffs between the departments, and yet there are folks still not convinced that warm handoffs are key to preventing suicides.”
Shinseki added that the VA has had tremendous funding support in each of President Obama’s four budget requests. “Our investments in mental health programs increased by more than one-third in the past three years—from $4.4 billion in 2009 to $5.9 billion in 2012—and our funding specifically for suicide prevention has doubled from $35.8 million in 2009 to $72.8 million in our 2013 budget request, with $6.2 billion overall for mental health.”
“With that support, we have hired more than 4,000 mental health professionals in the last four years alone, and plan to hire another 1,600 professionals this year, bringing our total mental health clinical staff up to almost 22,000. In 2005, in the midst of heavy fighting in Iraq, 13,000 mental health staff were handling these needs here in VA. And as DoD estimates growth in its mental health patient load, we will hire additional staff to pace the growth in transitioning requirements. But that takes warm handoffs—or else, we are stuck in that primarily reactive response of rescuing them during crisis.”
The VA also reported that among the 8.6 million veterans enrolled in VA healthcare, the number receiving treatment for mental health conditions is up, and veterans being treated the suicide rates are decreasing. “It is an indication that the system is doing a better job of identifying and treating people at risk of suicide. If we diagnose and treat, the outcomes are often positive.” Shinseki stated.
Shinseki concluded in his speech, “The VA will continue to work closely with DoD to strengthen our collaboration on behalf of Veterans leaving the Service and reservists returning from operational deployments. We simply must transition them better. Last month, Secretary Panetta and I met to reaffirm our commitment to a fully operational Integrated Electronic Health Record by 2017—a significant challenge. But, as they say in Central Texas, 'You can’t wring your hands and roll your sleeves up at the same time.' You have to do one or the other. He and I have rolled our sleeves up to better pursue the well-being of those who have served the Nation.”