Battles beyond the war zone

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Sara Van Cleve
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Returning home from deployment is a time of great joy for families, but once the elation fades, other emotions often kick in for service men and women.

“One of the hardest things is you remember the day you stepped off the plane and your whole family was there or whoever was there to greet you when you first came back, and you remember how happy you were, and that’s part of what makes you flip back into depression,” said Army Spec. Matt Spradley, who was deployed to Afghanistan in 2010-11.

“You go ‘Well, holy crap. Is that the happiest I’m ever going to be? Will I ever feel as happy as I was that day?’ and it makes it really hard to deal with anything really,” he said.

The range of emotions for returning soldiers — from happiness to sadness, from guilt and fear to anger and frustration — is just one issue facing America’s service people.

“You look at things differently — everything,” said Army Spec. Cody Jones, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2008-09. “Your family, your friends, the world in general. Everything is different.”

Retired Air Force Chief Master Sgt. and counselor Ken Van Holbeck with Warrior Counseling and Consulting in Colorado Springs often works with veterans, soldiers and their families and said returning from deployment can present a slew of difficulties.

“(They can experience) reintegration problems, adjustment disorders, problems with sleep, substance abuse, relational problems, excessive fatigue, financial problems and symptoms associated with trauma — avoidance, hyper vigilance, anxiety and depression,” Van Holbeck said.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 11 to 20 percent of veterans returning from deployment serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom meet clinical requirements for a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

It is a common misconception that all soldiers have PTSD, Van Holbeck said.

“If PTSD has become common for a lot of soldiers, it’s because our military is much smaller than in years past,” said Van Holbeck, who served in the Air Force for 30 years and was deployed numerous times. “I don’t think the leadership in Pentagon in the early ‘90s envisioned future wars lasting over 10 years, nor did they envision low-tech fighting. The result is fewer boots on the ground available to fight a long, protracted conflict. The more a person is exposed to trauma, the more likely they will be diagnosed with trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s all about numbers today.”

Returning adjustments

While not all soldiers and veterans are diagnosed with PTSD, Jones and Spradley said they know many who are, or at least experience trauma symptoms after returning.

Spradley was diagnosed with PTSD upon his return home. Both men said they have had to deal with common symptoms of PTSD, including anxiety, isolation, trouble reintegrating and adjusting and sleep problems.

“My biggest thing, to this day, is sleeping at normal times,” Jones said. “I’ll stay up for two days and then crash and sleep for a few hours. I’ve got the weirdest sleep schedule. I still can’t get that down mainly because I’ll have anxiety attacks and stay up all night playing video games or doing something to calm down.”

Jones said his issues didn’t start until after he left the military, when he was both afraid of being alone, yet at the same time, anxious in crowds such as at a store.

Safety is a major cause of anxiety for soldiers when they return home, Spradley said.

“You’re in a dangerous situation when you’re over there, but you have your best friends sleeping 10 feet from you and you know those people always have your back,” Spradley said. “When you get back, everybody goes their separate ways, and you’re pretty much by yourself. You’re not feeling safe anymore because you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Public perceptions

Misunderstanding by the general public often leads to even greater issues, Spradley said.

“People look at PTSD like it’s a zombie outbreak, so they avoid it like that’s exactly what it is,” he said. “Don’t avoid topics that set it off. People who go through their lives after they’re diagnosed and get it, they live with it the rest of their lives and if people avoid any conversation, anything that might possibly set it off, that’s what puts that person that has it into having more issues and more depression.”

Michelle Benavidez, mother of Army Staff Sgt. Kenneth Mayne, a soldier killed in Iraq in 2008, has adopted Jones, Spradley and other soldiers as “her boys.” Through that extended family, Benavidez has seen another common misconception about PTSD — it isn’t real.

“People think they’re faking it,” Benavidez said. “It’s real.”

She said some people think service members who come back and are not missing an arm or a leg should not have problems such as PTSD, should not act out, seek help or complain about their condition.

“It’s ‘well, you survived so shut up.’ How civilians expect you guys to behave is nowhere near reality,” she said.

Benavidez and Van Holbeck both agree that both the public and the government should play more of a factor in the healing of soldiers and veterans.

“I think educating is a big piece,” Benavidez said. “Just letting the average person know there is a percentage of people who fake it … but the majority of guys coming back aren’t faking it. They aren’t asking you to bow down and kiss their feet, but have a little bit of respect for what they did and try to understand what they are going through.”

Resources and responsiveness

With President Barack Obama’s goal of bringing the majority of troops home by the end of 2014, thousands of troops will be returning home in need of some sort of assistance.

“They require resources to treat trauma, depression or anxiety,” Van Holbeck said. “While our elected officials on Capitol Hill play politics with the defense budget, a good many troops are in need of treatment. One of the biggest issues civilians need to understand is that we cannot make the same mistake we made with returning Vietnam veterans, many of whom were never offered treatment.”

While many veterans have been prescribed medications and received assistance to help their symptoms, there is still a negative stigma associated with seeking mental health treatment, Van Holbeck said, which often leads to self-treatment through avoidant behaviors or substance use.

“You’re frowned upon and looked upon as weak,” Jones said. “When you come back and they’re asking you all these questions to see if you have any mental health issues, they pretty much tell you to lie about it and all that does is screw you because they have that paperwork on file. It’s a lot harder for you to get seen and have the VA pay for it.”

Psychotropic medications and psychotherapy are often effective ways to treat PTSD, Van Holbeck said.

Spradley said he has had professional help and he has learned how to better control his PTSD.

“I learned how to deal with issues differently, but they haven’t gotten any better,” Spradley said. “I went to therapy, met with a psychiatrist and talked it out with him. There’s breathing techniques and stuff like that so I learned to calm myself down when it starts kicking in and I’m having issues.

“I’ve had a lot of time to get used to living with PTSD so all the stuff that used to happen to me when I went out into public kind of just dwindled off, that or I just don’t notice it anymore,” Spradley said.

While professional help is the most effective way soldiers can deal with PTSD, Van Holbeck said the public can help too — through advocacy, acceptance, empathy, support and understanding.

“The most effective way — short of contributing to the various organizations supporting veteran treatment — of getting involved is contacting your elected officials and demanding they support treatment of military men and women who have been wounded in battle, physically and emotionally,” Van Holbeck said. “The current political climate does not seem to favor the very people who have fought to keep our citizens and our country safe from terrorists and extremists, but they should.”

Sometimes a five-minute email to a congressman or senator can make a difference, she added.

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