Some football programs at both collegiate and high school levels have a tradition: at the end of the national anthem, when the home team scores or wins the game, a small cannon is fired at a safe distance behind one of the end zones in celebration.
One evening, a young man was catching up with old colleagues and mentors during a match between his alma mater and a local rival. This young veteran had just returned from a tour in Iraq. He stood at attention and saluted the flag as the national anthem played over the speakers. The anthem ended, the cannon was fired, the players took their positions on the field and the crowd took their seats on the bleachers.
But the young man remained standing, hands at his sides, frozen still, his skin pale as the echo of the cannon reverberated throughout his body, causing him to relive memories and moments from which he just returned.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a disorder that can develop after experiencing shocking, scary, or dangerous events. U.S. veterans and active duty service members make the ultimate sacrifice to protect the nation, with absolutely no guarantee that they’ll return alive or unscathed. They leave their families and friends, miss the weddings of their siblings or the births of their own children in order to step up and stand against the forces that wish to do them and our way of life harm. But, in doing so, they put themselves at risk of developing this disorder. As we honor our veterans for their sacrifice and bravery, we may forget that — even though they survived the trenches, jungles or deserts — not everyone returns home whole.
The reality is that, despite returning to civilian life, the trauma they witnessed is never far from their minds, making their transition a greater challenge and even putting their physical and mental health in greater jeopardy.
According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, up to 20 percent of veterans who saw combat in Iraq and Afghanistan develop PTSD or major depression in a given year, as well as experienced a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Additionally, 12 percent of men and women who fought in the Gulf War have developed PTSD, and an estimated 30 percent of Vietnam veterans have had PTSD in their lifetime.
Among the number of veterans who return from war with mental health issues and PTSD, only about 50 percent will actually receive the mental health treatment they need. Both active duty service members and veterans face great barriers to mental health treatment issues that make them hesitant to pursue treatment, including wait times, demographics and logistics regarding traveling distances, age and gender.
“[My therapist] kinda encouraged me to get enrolled in the VA, which I had not done for five years after retiring from the military,” said Christopher Provost of Colorado while speaking with StoryCorps. “I didn’t realize how angry I was when I got out of the military. That was a big thing… in dealing with the post-traumatic stress.“
Provost joined the National Guard to ski and compete in biathlons — a sport that combines cross-country skiing and target shooting. He served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, but he didn’t consider enrolling for VA benefits until about five years after retiring from the military.
“I was hearing about the shortage and the backlog,” he said, “and, you know, all the amputees that weren’t getting their appointments, and, you know, people killing themselves in VA parking lots because they couldn’t get their therapy appointments. And I’m like, I’m fine. I’ve got a job, I’ve got a house over my head, I’ve got a car. I’m doing fine. They need help before me. And so I was kinda putting…I guess it was a displacement.”
According to Benjamin Keyes, Ph.D., Ed.D., Director for Center for Trauma and Resiliency Studies at Divine Mercy University, there are five symptoms of PTSD. Unstable moods and reacting to certain triggers are the most easily recognizable.
“I had a friend in college,” he said, “who had just gotten back from Vietnam. Whenever we heard a helicopter approach or fly over, he would hide under a desk or do whatever he could to take cover.”
Other symptoms include self-isolation, hyper arousal and intrusion of consciousness, in which they are stuck on a thought or memory from the battlefields that they can’t shake or push from their minds.
“Though some cases are similar in symptom and description, all cases are different for each individual,” Devon Alonge, a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts student at George Mason University. Devon served as an armourer specialist for the U.S. Army, and deployed to Iraq in 2011.
“For myself,” Alonge continued, “having been in a combat zone for six months, I deal with some issues regarding anxiety and, in some cases, claustrophobia.”
Shame is an incredibly critical factor in treating veteran PTSD. Some may feel embarrassed over their service-related mental disabilities, whereas others experience shame over needing to seek mental health treatment and are afraid of being seen as weak, or that they should still be fighting with their comrades-in-arms, but have gone home instead. When the shame is not addressed, it leaves our veterans in danger of falling into alcoholism and substance abuse, and even lead them to commit suicide. According to a study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, veterans with PTSD have higher rates in suicide and suicidal behavior. Approximately 20 veterans commit suicide every day.
“When soldiers return home from war, there is a sense of relief,” said Dr. Keyes, “But then they feel a sense of guilt about being home while others are still in the fields fighting. As they adjust to civilian life, they’ll feel that they should still be fighting in the war with the people they left behind.”
Dr. Norman Hooten has experienced this first hand. A full-time health care provider who helps veterans fight substance addiction, non-cancer related chronic pain and PTSD, Hooten served for over 20 years in the U.S. Army and special forces before retiring as Master Sgt. Norman “Hoot” Hooten, and fought in the Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia, which was later chronicled in the book and film, Black Hawk Down (Sgt. Hooten was played by actor Eric Bana in the film).
He experienced losing someone struggling with a mental health disorder when a platoon sergeant he knew early in his career committed suicide after struggling with PTSD and substance abuse.
“In the military, we never want to lose people, but it becomes understandable when we lose people on the battlefield,” Hooten said to the Military Times. “A generation of veterans have survived the horrors of war to come home and commit suicide. I do not want to accept this. I want to do everything I can to make a dent in this problem. Even if this is about saving one person.”
It’s highly important — and the very least we can do — for us to ensure that necessary mental health treatments, both clinical and spiritual, are available to our vets and service members when they return home, and that starts with the relationships they build both in service and in life. Research has shown that kindling and rekindling relationships are critical to promoting change in those who are suffering and need help. These are the first stepping stones toward building hope — especially amongst veterans who served together — and are the first line of defense in identifying the signs of mental illness or PTSD.
“Sometimes we get too comfortable not communicating with one another for a year or more because we tend to always think we are all close and fine,” said Dr./Sgt. Hooten. “But that one phone call every now and then, or that meet-up for a fishing trip might make the difference in saving a life.”
Divine Mercy University’s co-director for the Online Master’s in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, Dr. John West, has had the privilege of working with many veterans and soldiers returning from war who had survived traumatic events in battle, including one man whose vehicle was blown up during a firefight, breaking his back.
“When I first started seeing him,” he explained, “he was completely hunched over, walking with a cane. His back was broken. His life was broken. He was just filled with despair and hopelessness.”
At one of their sessions, the man brought a baseball because he loved baseball so much, and asked Dr. West to hold onto it for him. From then on, during each session of working through the trauma and adjustments, Dr. West handed him that baseball as a source of comfort while they spoke. After a few months, he began to heal, both physically and emotionally.
“His whole life started to be reconstructed,” Dr. West said. “By the time we were finished — when he had been able to move past the trauma, adjust to this new phase of his life and regain his dignity — he was ready to move on. As he was walking out the door after our last session, he had that baseball in his hand. But he stopped at the door, looked back and tossed it to me saying ‘someone else needs this more than I do now.’”
Divine Mercy University is one of the nation’s leading graduate institutes that trains students in addressing and treating PTSD and other trauma-related disorders, with the specific mission to help patients flourish.
“You can recover,” said Dr. Keyes. “Our students are trained to think about how people can flourish in their lives, and how they can help our veterans deal with emotions they suppressed while in combat zones. Having that as an overlay is a quality difference in treating PTSD.”
Learn more about what you can do to help those around you suffering from PTSD or other trauma. (The Effects of Trauma)