Iraq War veterans: Bearing the cross every day

Dr. Vivian Blevins - And then

We hear the acronym PSTD, and we know that it’s not good – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. We realize the words can apply to persons who have experienced significant trauma which strains their ability to cope. It is now used to describe the mental illness which may result from a variety of traumas, but since the 1970s we have primarily used the term to refer to the illness suffered by persons returning from combat. We have known for centuries, however, that the ravages of war can be long lasting, crippling, and we’ve called the condition “shell shock” and “combat fatigue.”

Two men returning from war in the Middle East share their stories. Lance Corporal U.S. Marine E.M. was first deployed to Iraq for nine months beginning in February of 2004 and for the second time for a five-month period in October of 2006. Between those deployments, he was on the U.S.S. Boxer for five months on a Marine expeditionary unit assignment to the Philippines, India, Singapore, Australia, and Hawaii.

He recalls vividly that on that first deployment to Iraq he and members of his unit were called out one night while stationed at Camp Hurricane Point in Ar Ramadi. A rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) had hit a vehicle in a U.S. convoy. The weather conditions were “black out,” and when they were halted in the middle of the road by one of their own, they knew they had reached the designated location.

E.M. was driving, and he knew the protocol: Cordon off the area and do a sweep, a 5-meter, a 10-meter and a 20-meter, to make sure there were no IEDs (improvised explosive devices aka homemade bombs). He reports, “In my sweep I noticed human tissue on the ground, and as I looked at the hit vehicle, there appeared to be no damage. On the driver’s side, however, was a soldier, and an unexploded RPG had taken off the back of his head. The tissue on the ground was his.”

He felt blank and sick to his stomach but did what he was supposed to do: keep the area secure until they were ready to move the dead soldier. His unit

returned to base where he went into a Port-A-Potty and broke down crying: “When I’m hurt, I’m the kind of person who keeps things to myself. I got myself together and went back to the barracks to wait for the next time to be called out.”

As a marine, E.M had been taught by his training to remain in control because it could made the difference between living or dying, but after surviving “about six IEDs, I knew I was not in control.”

During his second deployment to Iraq, he says it was different. He first experienced denial that he was going back. When he arrived there, he sensed there seemed to be fewer IEDs.

“Combat has two sides. You’re either going 110 miles an hour or you’re sitting there waiting to go 110 miles an hour. The entire second deployment was like waiting to go 110 miles an hour. You’re flinching, but no one is punching you. In our search of cities, we’d find they were clear , and only once did we find a significant cache: guns, ammo, one-five-one rounds, the main and ready source of materials for IEDs.”

When he exited from the marines in 2007, he didn’t ask for help because he “didn’t want to seem weak.” He was told by friends and family that he seemed “different, wasn’t connected to them the way he had been.”

He was, and is, different. He reports the classic symptoms of PTSD: Has a short fuse, doesn’t handle stress well, hears deep booms, wakes up with night terrors with a brain that “won’t stop talking to me. In my mind I can be in rushing water and am unable to get out, or the guys I served with who died are saying, ‘Why didn’t you help me? Why couldn’t you save me? ‘ I have survivor’s guilt. ”

In 2007 he started self-medicating with alcohol and did so for two years but found that didn’t help. His father convinced him to go to the VA where they prescribed a sleep medicine that eliminates dreams, Trazadone.

After a time, he stopped taking the medicine because “I felt like I was getting dependent on it, and I wasn’t alert.”

To control anxiety now, he meditates, does light exercise, and listens to therapeutic music (Beta waves). He says the strategies “help me feel happier but the stuff at night wears me out during the day.”

Buddy, a yellow lab-collie mix, and Ms. Wiggles, a Jack Russell- beagle mix, help another Iraq War veteran J.C. with his PTSD. Diagnosed at 100 percent disability, he served in the National Guard for 17 years, and it was in that last year, January of 2004, that he was deployed to Iraq. He says, “I was scared to death, didn’t know what to expect. I knew I had to go because it was part of the agreement I had signed.

“The people in my unit were pretty good, knew when to get serious.”

He adjusted to the weather, first in Kuwait and then in Iraq, and to living out of a duffel bag with the 24/7 commands, being told what to do and when to do it.

A semi- truck driver, he and his unit was sent to several camps in Iraq before Easter Sunday in 2004. At high noon on that day, he heard gun fire. Before he knew it, he was in a cross fire. He saw members of an Indiana unit who needed help, Having only the basics of first-aid training, he went to help.

One of the soldiers had been shot in the leg, and his femoral artery was damaged. “The bleeding was bad, and I did the best I could for him.”

J.C. learned that the soldier had died: “It made me feel like I could have done something different, faster. I blamed myself.”

A few days later J.C. teamed up with another unit to go to Lukoil to make a delivery. His assistant driver hopped out of the truck and was talking to a warrant officer about the delivery. The next thing J.C. remembers is that he was at a first-aid station with “no wounds on me.” From there it was on to Landstuhl, Germany, and then to Walter Reed Hospital and from there to Scott Air Force Base. Finally, at Fort Knox, “They figured out I had PTSD. I went into therapy with all kinds of drugs and sleeping pills.

“I have nightmares with that Easter Sunday playing out over and over in my head. I have road rage. When people fly up behind me, I’m back in Iraq. Life is too precious to put lives in danger by speeding from one place to another.”

When he returned from Iraq, family members noticed a difference in him: he was more alert and not himself. “I used to joke around a lot. When I got back, I was all business, Army mode. I was what the Army had trained me to be. One of the biggest problems when we come home is people saying or thinking, ‘There’s nothing wrong with you. Get on with your life.’”

He and his wife divorced in March of 2005, and he was fired from his job because of his symptoms.

After his discharge from the military, J.C. was required to sign in with the local VA. He knows his PSTD is not going away: “We have it for the rest of our lives. It sucks, but that’s the way it is.”

A weekly support group at his local VA has played a major role in his post-military life. It’s run by veterans with a coordinator. Ten to 14 veterans show up for the weekly meetings. Each has a phone roster and can call anyone on the list and know that regardless if it’s 3 a.m., that person will be responsive. There is no note taking in the meetings and what is said in the meetings stays in the meetings. When they check in each week, all a veteran needs to say is “I need to have the floor,” and there is no limit to the time devoted to him or her.

In JC’s time with the group, there has only been one suicide. He says, ”With the high rate of veteran suicide (an average of 22 per day), our record shows that the group does work, but losing even one is one too many.”

E.M. and J.C. bear the cross every day of their lives.

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Dr. Vivian Blevins

And then

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