Monday, September 27, 2010

Coming home, getting on with life difficult for veterans with PTSD

From Sugar Land Sun in Texas:

For James Jones, a simple trip to the mall can be an experience.

"You are constantly eyeballing everything, looking at everything around you, and people don't quite understand because they haven't been in that situation,” Jones said.

For Jones, a U.S. Marine, “that situation” is a deployment the Al Anbar Province of Iraq, where he served in 2007 and 2009.

Now that he is back in civilian life, Jones, a firefighter with Missouri City Fire and Rescue Services who enlisted in the Marines right out of high school, finds himself constantly scanning the area around him as if he were still in the Middle East.

"Day to day over there, you never know what will happen at any moment, you are in survival mode and it is kind of tough to transition from being on active duty to just being a regular guy back in the civilian world," Jones said.

"There is not a switch in the back of your head, that says ‘deployed,’ ‘not deployed.’ That switch does not exist," Jones said.

Leaving a war zone under constant threat and returning to a laid-back lifestyle requires a period of adjustment, according to the 23-year-old Marine.

"For anyone who has been deployed and come back, just driving down the road can be a feat in the first couple of weeks, if not months," Jones said.

For the Fort Bend County veterans who return to civilian life, changes are abound. From post-traumatic stress disorder to copying with a disablities, veterans are looking for ways to cope.

According to Dr. Drew Helmer, with the Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Houston, the VA has seen more than 9,000 returning Afghanistan and Iraq veterans since 2002.

According to Helmer, one in six veterans has “a diagnosable problem” with post-traumatic stress syndrome.

"Short of a diagnosis, we see a lot of people who have challenges with reintegrating into civilian society and sometimes that is because they have symptoms like PTSD, but they are not quite severe enough to meet the diagnostic criteria," Helmer said.

Returning veterans are encouraged to go through a half-day post-deployment clinic and receive extensive assessments.

"We sit down and talk to every person independently to see what is going on in their minds and with their emotions,” Helmer said.

According to Helmer, veterans most likely to develop PTSD have been shown to be people who have had previous traumatic experiences before being deployed, a history of mental health problems or poor social support systems, according to the VA clinician.

Dr. Laura Marsh, a professor of psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston has treated vets suffering from a number of mental health issues, chief among them, problems with substance abuse, mood disorders and post-traumatic stress syndrome.

"You can have post-traumatic feelings and it isn't necessarily a disorder, and there are many people like that. What makes it a disorder is when symptoms become disabling or extremely distressing," Marsh said.

Marsh advises veterans experiencing troubling symptoms to seek help.

"People think that they will be embarrassed, but it is not that uncommon to get help and it is better to feel better," Marsh said.

For Brooke Lewis (pictured), watching war movies has been the hardest adjustment after serving on a military intelligence team in Iraq for five years.

"Just the sounds can trigger a moment when there were bullets flying and we were pushing combatants in Falujjah and in moments like that you think, am I going to survive this," Lewis said.

The 5-foot, 3-inch tall soldier, and only female in her military unit, looks back on her days in combat as a privilege to serve her country.

Despite being charged with the duty of confirming the identities of dead bodies of opposing Al Queda troops, Lewis said she has had few challenges.

She acknowledges the emotional baggage that many in the military carry and admits to having had a few flashbacks, but said she has been able to "compartmentalize" her feelings.

According to Pamela Swope, manager of Women Veterans Health, about 26 percent of female veterans at the Houston VA feel the need to seek help in reintegrating into society.

Life for Steven Schulz changed forever on April 19, 2005, when the vehicle he was riding in was hit by a military bomb outside of Fallujah.

A former Marine corporal, Schulz is one of the thousands of returning veterans who sustained severe injuries during active combat.

According to the DeBakey Medical Center, between April 2007 and September 2010, the center has treated 711 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars for mild to moderate traumatic brain injuries. Seventeen veterans had severe injuries.

Schulz' injury impacted the frontal lobe of his brain, left him paralyzed on one side and robbed him of vision in one eye.

“His greatest challenge has been adapting to a ‘new normal,’” said his mother, Debbie Schulz.

Schulz, now 26, is readapting to regular life and has learned to walk again and adapt to his physical limitations.

Many disabled soldiers with similar injuries have not fared as well and suffered problems with depression.

Efraim Villagomez, commander for the Disabled American Veterans, Chapter 223 in Rosenberg, said his organization has had difficulty encouraging younger Iraqi and Afghanistan veterans to seek help.

"Many feel that what happens over there, stays over there, and it is between them and God," Villagomez said.

Maj. Adam Collett, executive officer of Rear Detachment for the 72nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, called the "culture of self-sufficiency and wanting to always be strong," a dynamic of the military that helps soldiers succeed in a variety of missions around the world. But back home, if taken to the extreme, it can be unhealthy.

He encourages members of the military to seek help.

"Asking for help is an act of strength, it is not an act of weakness," Collett said.