When ‘‘G.I. Joe’’ arrived home after time in the service, his transition back into civilian life was haunted by nightmares and flashbacks of the inescapable vivid images he witnessed in the Iraq War. As the symptoms worsened, he was clinically diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a common occurrence among military veterans.
A Lorain County Community College student and veteran, Joe (who wishes to keep his identity private), spent eight years in the military. Completing two combat deployments, he spent the last two and a half years of his second deployment in Tikrit, Iraq.
As a medical specialist nearing the end of his final deployment, Joe and his fellow service members sat outside a provincial governor’s building waiting to securely transport high-ranking civilians and government officials.
Enduring the sweltering humidity of the Middle Eastern climate, they waited hours for their charges to emerge from the structure.
“We always felt that we were pretty safe,” he said. “Plus, we had been to that building a hundred times. Nothing ever happened.”
In the 120 degree heat, “normally, some of us would doze off; four hours sitting in all that gear in the hot sun,” Joe recalled. “It was really close to when we were going home and as we were out there, I started hearing this plinking sound. Then next thing I hear is ‘holy shit’ and [my gunner] spun around and I just saw brass [casings] falling down. I said what the hell is it; he said we were taking fire. So I got on [the radio] to my platoon leader and we were told to suppress the threat.”
The insurgents, as it later turned out, were three adolescents, although what remained of them was not identifiable to the untrained eye.
“I had never seen human bodies look like ground beef,” he said. “We went and picked up pieces of these kids’ faces. That stuff will sit with you [and] you’ll feel guilty about it everyday.”
Dealing with the burden of ending the lives of children took Joe years to deal with.
“I don’t care how tough you are, it’ll knock you into a hole and you’ll grow up so fast,” he said.
Signs of PTSD
Common signs shown when a soldier or civilian experiences a traumatic event include re-experiencing the ordeal (typically through nightmares or flashbacks), as well as a lack of interest in regularly-enjoyed activities.
“What we’re worried about is if someone’s isolating [themselves], which means they’re not getting any support,” said Quentin Kuntz, a licensed professional clinical, crisis intervention and career counselor in Enrollment and Financial Services at LCCC. “If they’re alienated or estranged from their family, friends, [or] from things they like to do or they used to do for pleasure.”
While not all former service members develop signs of the disorder, 49 percent of those who saw combat while on active duty have been diagnosed, helpguide.org found. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) officially established PTSD in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders third edition (DSM-III) . According to the DSM, the links between trauma of war and the post-military civilian life was established, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) reported. Since its original printing, the criteria of PTSD has been revised four times as research on the disorder continues.
A serious indication of the disorder in veterans and other trauma victims is the abuse of any type of medication or alcohol substance.
“Over-medication, whether it’s pills, booze [or] pot, the drug itself doesn’t really matter. It depends on what relationship that individual has with it,” Kuntz said. “People crave relief. [They] crave a break from all this anxiety and tension.”
In Joe’s case, nearly two years passed before he began to respond to the aftermath of the event.
“I started noticing nightmares, night sweats, [and] excessive drinking,” he said. “I started drinking a lot and abusing pills.”
Nearly 31 percent of Vietnam veterans, 10 percent Gulf War (Desert Storm), and 11 percent of veterans from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq suffer from PTSD, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reported. This equates to one in five veterans being diagnosed.
Coping with trauma
“The big thing is at some point to establish a relationship of trust with a person,” Kuntz said. “Not every veteran wants to talk about what they’ve seen, heard or what they’ve been through. But it’s important [that] there comes a time where they can, if not specifically describe what they’ve been through; at least acknowledge how intense it was.”
In a study published by the U.S. Army Medical Department, it was found that exposure to combat in Iraq was considerably higher than those deployed to Afghanistan. PTSD and major depression were more likely to occur in returning soldiers from Iraq (with 17.1 percent) compared to those who fought in Afghanistan (11. 2 percent). Further, of those who were professionally diagnosed with PTSD, only 23 to 40 percent sought treatment.
“It got to be so bad with depression, that I would take an Ambien at nine in the morning so I could go back to bed,” he said. “ I finally got a hold of a whole set of Ambien pills and… ate them up and woke up in the ER with a bunch of charcoal over my face because they had pumped my stomach.”
“PTSD does not mean anybody’s crazy. It does not mean that they’re going to hurt anybody,” he said.
While a majority of those who suffer from PTSD have developed symptoms that affect their daily lifestyles, the extent to which they’re judged on the homefront is not always as extreme as it is often made out to be.
“Some cases are very severe and some people do have triggers, but it’s no different than any trigger that you have that pisses you off,” Joe said. “PTSD is a very severe case of having a pet peeve. It’s just things that irk you, it’s things that drive you, things that’ll make you change your way of life because you don’t like the way it makes you feel, period.”
“Most of the people whom I’ve worked with accept the fact that it’s going to be with them in one form or another,” Kuntz said. “All the symptoms may not leave, but it’s just like any medical condition; you manage your condition.”
Veterans dealing with the effects of PTSD can find it difficult to seek aid. The VA provides two types of cognitive behavioral therapy for those in need; cognitive processing therapy (CPT) and prolonged exposure therapy (PE). In CPT, patients learn to understand and shift their outlook on their trauma and its impact. PE includes gaining control of thoughts and emotions surrounding the source of the trauma while learning to not fear their memories.
While seeking professional help is highly advised, less than 40 percent of veterans who suffer from symptoms receive treatment, the PTSD Foundation of America found.
“There are some [veterans] out there who really are shell shocked, who will never be the same and will never be able to function in society again,” Joe said. “But not all of us are like that, and the bottom line is we all get treated like that.”
Self-help methods have been found to be just as effective in dealing with various symptoms of shell shock. Learning more about common reactions to trauma allows a person to realize they are not alone in their experiences, the VA reported. Connecting with those who have suffered through similar events provides much needed support.
“Other people are mirrors to our faces,” Kuntz said. “When we see people who have gone through similar trauma, it’s like, ‘I’m not alone; I’m not the only person who’s going through this’.”
Living life in the present
Dealing with and moving on from the guilt took Joe years. Today, though, he has since made peace.
“The biggest thing that I was able to do was stop living in the past and apply my mind to something else that’s in the future,” he said. “Those kids made the decision five years into this war to go up there and shoot at an armored vehicle. We had better weapons, we had better training, we had better soldiers; it was the dumbest mistake they’d ever made.”
“It’s happened, there’s nothing I can do to change it,” Joe said.” Look towards your future, not the past. You can’t change anything about it.”
For student veterans at LCCC struggling to live a normal life as a civilian, maintaining achievable goals to work toward is key.
“One of the biggest things I did to help myself was enroll in classes here [at LCCC],” Joe said. “I started working towards a bachelor’s degree. I tried to remember that I was in the military but now I’m a civilian.”
Focusing on what’s to come and not what has come can make a world of difference in the long run.