This second segment of a three-part series regarding Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD 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.
Julie Leconte is a facilitator for the Military Family Support Group in El Dorado County. In the course of being involved with the support group, she’s met a number of family members whose loved ones are experiencing symptoms of PTSD.
“In the general population, the prevalence of PTSD is about 7 percent, but in the military population, depending on the number of combat deployments, traumatic brain injury, physical injury and the presence of pain, the numbers range from 17 to 30 percent,” said Leconte. “It’s a life-altering war wound that many service members experience, even though it doesn’t leave a scratch on the body.”
Many veterans do not report symptoms, so it is difficult to accurately estimate the numbers. In addition, for every veteran with PTSD there is a direct impact on at least three, and as many as 10, family members.
“We have over 14, 000 veterans living in El Dorado County,” said Leconte. The El Dorado County Department of Veterans Affairs believes there are 17,000 vets in the county. “So, we’re talking anywhere from 2,400 to 4,200 local veterans could have PTSD, which makes at least 7,000 people who love and care for these veterans living right here.”
Leconte related a story about a veteran who returned from multiple deployments and could not reconnect to his wife, children or family. He refused to seek treatment for his rage and suffering, using alcohol and drugs to keep it at bay. Unwilling to let anyone know of his struggles for fear of appearing weak and vulnerable, the vet became isolated. His wife, unwilling to show disloyalty to her husband, kept the problem to herself and the children, unable to articulate their feelings, internalize them as feeling they had done something wrong. The entire family became hard to reach and insular. Eventually, the love and persistence of extended family members got the veteran to seek help.
“The whole family had to get educated about PTSD in order to recognize it and be able to do something about it,” said Leconte.
“The grief these families experience, especially after the emotional roller coaster of supporting their loved one during active duty — patriotic pride, mind-numbing fear during deployment, ecstatic joy of homecomings — can be extremely bitter,” said Leconte. “As a society, we are very judgmental and even the words we use to describe someone with PTSD as a victim gets in the way of seeking help.”
Statistics on Vietnam veterans show a 38 percent divorce rate within six months of military discharge. The divorce rate for Vietnam vets with PTSD is twice the rate of Vietnam era vets without PTSD.Homelessness, family violence, physical and verbal aggression rates are also high among veterans diagnosed with PTSD. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 1/4 to 1/5 of all homeless are veterans. Veterans Inc. estimates that 45 percent of homeless vets have PTSD and about 70 percent have alcohol or drug dependency issues.
According to a March 2013 article in the American Psychiatric Association journal, two-thirds of homeless veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have PTSD, a much higher percentage than veterans of earlier eras.
Family members are often unaware of the symptoms of PTSD and many veterans hide their struggles from family members. Some veterans self-medicate with drugs or alcohol to numb themselves from reliving the trauma or to gain a measure of control over their lives. The usage can lead to addiction; addiction can lead to a host of other problems with health, relationships and employment.
“They can’t sleep and they want to block memories, so they do what anyone would,” said Dr. Paige Brown, clinical and forensic psychologist working with Welcome Home Vets. “It’s a general rule of thumb that you treat the addiction before the disorder, but I haven’t found that to be right for combat vets. I treat the addiction and the disorder concurrently because there’s no use in curing the addiction if what caused it is still there.”
Ken Osborn, 69, is completing his Ph.D. in psychology. He is a counselor for the Welcome Home Vets organization and has suffered from PTSD since he returned from Vietnam in 1966. “In 1965-1966 I was in 12-15 combat missions as a Marine,” said Osborn. “When I got out of the hospital after a month healing from injuries, I found I couldn’t be around groups of people. I didn’t want to go to a mall and would only go to drive-in movies where I had some control over what was around me.”
Osborn said no one talked about it and he denied to himself that there was any problem. “I began to drink heavily; my marriage dissolved.” Despite his problems with the sound of helicopters, low-flying aircraft and loud noises, he became a law enforcement officer. “In 1977, I started looking for a better way to deal with the problems I was struggling with than drinking. A conversion to Christianity was a major step for me. It started me talking to people instead of avoiding them.”
His PTSD symptoms, exacerbated by his job in law enforcement, forced a medical retirement in 1993, but it wasn’t until 1999 that a talk with another vet who had also been in law enforcement led to Osborn’s realization that he needed help.
“They gave me a checklist of 22 items associated with PTSD and 19 applied to me,” said Osborn. He continued to struggle until 2008 when he came to Welcome Home Vets, a private organization with four licensed psychologists and two licensed marriage and family therapists who work with veterans with PTSD and their families.
Betty Blaylock didn’t meet her husband Bill until after his return from Vietnam. “He didn’t trust a lot of people and was very cautious and strict with our children. The kids and I just thought that was part of his law enforcement demeanor. But, I came to know the signs that he wasn’t going to have ‘a good day’ and know that he would retreat. The kids and I would give him some space, but I didn’t know until I read it in his book why he retreated.”
“I didn’t want to admit I had any mental health problem,” said Bill Blaylock of El Dorado Hills. “It’s OK to say you got a broken leg or shrapnel from Vietnam, but not a mental health problem.” He had survivor guilt from returning from a place where he had seen comrades die.
While Blaylock didn’t self-medicate or become abusive, he had 36 jobs in 42 years, unwilling to take orders or be told what to do. When quizzed by family members about his constant job changes, he would tell them it was to make more money and denied thinking about Vietnam or having nightmares.
“It’s often the family members who notice the change in the veteran,” said Lance Poinsett, veterans service representative for the El Dorado County Department of Veterans Affairs. “The vets themselves don’t see any changes or see the issues, but their family does.”
Jack Warf, a Vietnam veteran with PTSD, now participating in group and individual therapy at a Veterans Center, said he didn’t believe he had any PTSD issues, but his wife, who married him a year after he returned home from Vietnam, looked at the checklist of symptoms and recognized almost all of them as something she had been seeing in her husband for 40 years.
“She’s told my doctor and therapist how much the treatment has helped me and our whole family,” said Warf, who added that his wife now attends a PTSD group for wives and families. “Awareness helps families understand what’s going on. We call it Post Traumatic Stress Condition because it is a condition, not a mental disorder.”
“There should be no shame or stigma for sufferers of PTSD,” said Leconte. “Rather than pity or fear or avoiding those struggling with PTSD, treat them with kindness and respect … It’s not an illness, it’s a normal reaction to abnormal experiences. It’s not a temporary situation, but it can ease some with time. It’s not 100 percent curable, but there is help and hope to learn to thrive again. ”
The MSFG will be presenting a PTSD awareness event on June 24 at the Veterans Building on Placerville Drive in Placerville, at 6:30 p.m. There will be three guest speakers, including military chaplain Tim Thompson who will give a presentation about what to expect when your loved one comes home from deployment.
“Our theme is ‘Healing Happens With Understanding,’” said Leconte. “We hope that our community will become more educated and sensitive about what their neighbors may be experiencing.”