This is the final segment of a three-part series on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which affects an estimated 7 percent of the general U.S. population at some time in their lives, but this series focuses on PTSD victims in the military.
Ursula Lewis knows PTSD as a wife whose husband suffered from it and as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who works with people suffering from trauma. In the 1990s, Lewis was a college student whose husband served in Desert Storm. When he came home, he was no longer the fun-loving, easy-going man she had married. At 24, he avoided being around people other than his fellow soldiers.
“I knew something was wrong, but not what it was,” said Lewis. “His buddies were changed as well and they would all try to act normal and fit in, but it was hard for them to be around others. My husband tried to pretend everything was great and he kept very busy, but he wouldn’t talk. He was impatient, easily irritated and withdrawn. He slept with a little knife under his pillow and I was never sure if he woke up from a nightmare whether he would know if I were friend or foe.
“I was so confused and lost. Wives were indoctrinated not to ask questions that might get their husbands in trouble. I talked to my family, but they had no experience or awareness of what he was going through.”
Lewis and her husband lived off base and she was unaware of any support groups for PTSD or even what it was. Her husband began to shut down more and more, and eventually, they separated and later divorced.
In her El Dorado Hills office, Lewis uses hypnotherapy and EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) to help trauma victims access memories, process them and work through the negative thoughts, ultimately replacing them with positive thoughts and images.
EMDR is recommended by the American Psychiatric Association and the Department of Veterans Affairs as being effective for acute and chronic PTSD, particularly with those individuals who have great difficulty in talking about their experiences. It appears to be most successful in dealing with a specific traumatic event as opposed to a series of traumas.
“You have to get the splinter out,” said Lewis, “and regular talk therapy doesn’t seem to get down to it quickly. EMDR works quickly and without medication.”
Other frequently used treatments are Cognitive Processing Therapy, which teaches coping skills for changing beliefs, and Prolonged Exposure Therapy, both of which are used by the VA. Often a combination of therapy and medication is used for treatment.
“With help I’ve found coping skills,” said Ken Osborn, Vietnam vet and counselor at Welcome Home Vets in Grass Valley. “I still startle with loud noises, but I’m able to tell myself that it isn’t rifle fire and I’m safe. Some of our young people have been deployed over and over again. Try to imagine going into combat seven years out of eight — the damage from PTSD doesn’t go away, but you can learn coping skills.”
“I think many of them are told to be tough and man up in the military. It feels like showing weakness to admit there might be a problem,” said Lewis.
Others compare their trauma against the severe trauma of others and don’t feel they “should” be affected or have the right to be helped.
“It’s a mental health issue, and no one wants to admit to having a mental health problem,” said William Blaylock, Vietnam veteran and author of “Invisible: PTSD’s Stealth Attack on a Vietnam War Veteran.”
“Trying to get the word out to veterans is a huge task,” said Osborn. “It’s hard to get them to admit there is an issue and to get help for it.”
Dr. Paige Brown, who has worked with combat veterans for 17 years, started Welcome Home Vets to be able to offer a more flexible environment to work with vets and their families. “I’ve noticed that older guys who were in the Reserves and had lives and families before they went into active duty seem to know right away that they are different and they look for help. Younger guys, maybe just out of high school, go to war and return and don’t see a problem. It takes about three years for them to be ready to seek help after loss of jobs, failed relationships and even suicide attempts,” Brown said.
Brown quoted a statistic that 58,000 soldiers had died in Vietnam, but more than 100,000 veterans between the Vietnam era and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have committed suicide. “In 17 years, none of my vets has committed suicide,” said Brown. “Treatment works.”
Therapists must be familiar with military culture, said Brown, in order to be effective with veterans. “They have to be able to trust you and not feel judged,” said Brown. “They also need to see you as a real person who is genuine with them.”
A combination of individual and group therapy is used at Welcome Home Vets. “The groups are the magic glue,” said Brown. “I have one group of vets that range in age from 23 to 87. The younger vets can hear that the older vets also suffered the addictions and they got through them. The brotherhood with other vets that ‘get it’ is remarkable.”
“Talk to other veterans,” said Eric Rasbold, veterans service representative for El Dorado County Department of Veterans Affairs. “You need to see that you are not alone and unless someone has worn the uniform, they don’t get it.” Rasbold advised veterans to come to the EDC Veterans Affairs office to talk with the veterans who serve as advocates for other veterans. “We can help so they don’t get the runaround.”
While veterans in El Dorado County do have to sign up with the VA at Mather in Sacramento, they can receive treatment at Veterans Centers which are small, community based programs that offer individual and group counseling for PTSD, military sexual trauma, bereavement and substance abuse and screen for medical issues including TBI. The closest Veteran Center is in Citrus Heights and team leader, Mike Miracle, offers group and individual counseling every other Friday at the EDC Veterans Building at 130 Placerville Drive in Placerville.
“We aren’t the federal VA,” said Lance Poinsett, veterans service representative at EDC Department of Veterans Affairs. “We exist because of the support of the EDC Board of Supervisors. We can assist in filing claims, give them guidance and point them in the right direction for help. A vet’s discharge papers only tell part of the story … When we engage with them, they may start out talking about a physical problem, but talking brings up feelings — sometimes things they have never shared with their families.”
Rasbold pointed out that there is an increased awareness of PTSD and law enforcement, EMTs and firefighters now receive counseling after being involved in traumatic events. The military is also addressing PTSD for troops ending their deployment.
“They are even starting to work with the troops while still in country,” said Ed Swanson, EDC Department of Veterans Affairs service officer.
“I just hope it doesn’t take the new veterans 40 years to recognize they need help and to get it, the way it took us,” said Blaylock. “Writing my book was a wonderful, therapeutic release. If you think you need to say something, write it down even if you don’t plan to share it. It clarified my thoughts and helped open my mind.”
“Don’t try to ‘fix’ them; don’t assume you know that they are going through … acknowledge the depth and reality of their struggle; be supportive and respect their need for space … pray for them.” — from “PTSD Basics” by Welby O’Brien.
For information about PTSD, visit the Veterans Administration Website at ptsd.va.gov. There is a referral process which veterans must go through to get into specialty programs, but the 24/7 Veteran Combat Call Center (800-927-8387) gives vets the opportunity to talk to another combat veteran.
The El Dorado County Department of Veterans Affairs, 130 Placerville Drive in Placerville, is a county run, not federal, organization. Call it at 530-621-5892. It offers veteran advocacy and assistance with screening, claims and veterans programs free for veterans and families.
Visit the Military Family Support Group at MFSGonline.org.
The Sacramento and Citrus Heights Vet Centers offers readjustment counseling services and a host of other services free to vets and their families. Contact them at 916-566-7430 (Sacramento Center) or 916-535-0420 (Citrus Heights Center) or vetcenter.va.gov.
The Veterans Resource Center in Sacramento offers community based programs and services for veterans and their families. Call 650-566-0240 or vetsresource.org. The Soldiers Project in Roseville is a private, non-profit, independent group of volunteer, licensed mental health professionals. Call 530-210-0074 or visit tspsacramento.org/resources/service-members. Horses Healing Heroes in Herald was founded by Deborah Larsen to honor her father, a WWII veteran who suffered most of his adult life from PTSD. Call 916-690-0853 or visit horseshealingheros.org. Welcome Home Vets contracts with local providers of psychological services who are competent in both psychotherapy and military culture to provide individual, group, family and peer-based services. Call it at 530-272-3300 or visit the Website at welcomehomevets.org.