We all know what it is like to be under some kind of stress with the activities of our daily lives. Unfortunately more and more people are learning what it is like to live with a very different kind of stress. Whether they were originally drafted, volunteered, or just stepped up to protect their country, the men and women who serve are very good candidates for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in one form or another.
Veterans Mary Baker and Andy Durham from the Eureka Vet Center were the guest speakers at the Garberville Rotary Club last week. Rotarian and veteran Shon Wellborn began by reminding everyone of the sacrifices our servicemen and women make for our country every day. She also asked us to take a minute and say thank you to these men and women when we see them in uniform. Wellborn spoke about her years of military service and how she couldn’t wear her uniform out in public or to work for fear of verbal or physical attack by the very citizens she was serving to protect. While working at the Pentagon she said she and her fellow service members had to be bused in to work every day for their own safety.
The Eureka Vet Center provides services to veterans who have served in a combat zone and who are struggling with PTSD. The program was started by the United States Congress in 1979 to help the large number of Vietnam veterans who were having problems readjusting to daily life. The Vet Centers are community based and are part of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
In April 1991, in response to the Gulf War, Congress extended the eligibility to veterans who served during other periods of armed hostilities after the Vietnam era. Those other periods are identified as Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, the Persian Gulf, Somalia, and Kosovo/Bosnia. In October 1996, Congress extended the eligibility to include WWII and Korean combat veterans.
The goal of the Vet Center program is to provide a broad range of counseling, outreach, and referral services to eligible veterans in order to help them make a satisfying post-war readjustment to civilian life. On April 1, 2003, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs extended eligibility for Vet Center services to veterans of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and on June 25, 2003 to Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and subsequent operations within the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT). The family members of all veterans listed here are eligible for Vet Center services as well. Baker said her oldest client was 90 and her youngest was 19 and that there is no age limit for seeking assistance.
On August 5, 2003 VA Secretary Anthony J. Principi authorized Vet Centers to furnish bereavement counseling services to surviving parents, spouses, children, and siblings of service members who die of any cause while on active duty including federally activated Reserve and National Guard personnel.
Over the decades the terminology may have changed, but the results have been the same. In World War I it was called “shell shock;” World War II it was “battle fatigue;” and now it is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. No matter what the name, it is a real and sometimes frightening part of life for many veterans.
Baker said, “The mainstay of our practice is the treatment of PTSD, which is a normal set of reactions to trauma and it can be experienced by anyone. However, if the feelings or issues related to the trauma are not dealt with, it can turn into a disorder and a stress reaction that can be delayed for many years. For many of our war fighters that’s what happens. The combat trauma happens, they come home, they deny it, they put if off, and then later it is triggered by unemployment, marital problems or many other kinds of issues that are going on.”
Baker said the most common definition of a combat veteran is a man who served in a combat situation. Throughout history men have been the war fighters. Women were in support roles and rarely on the front lines. Things have changed dramatically with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Women actually make up 15% of the services and they are now in the war zones in ways they have never been before.
Baker said, “In late 2003 U.S. Army commanders in Iraq created a program sending female support soldiers out on missions with all male counterparts. U.S. policy bans women from units whose primary mission is direct ground combat. Remember, they are not supposed to do this.
”In the past the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense weren’t working together to see that the war fighters were taken care of. Now, when they get out of the military they are guaranteed five years of medical coverage by the Department of Veterans Affairs whether they are service connected or not, or whether they have a disability. Veterans must be seen immediately within the VA system and are now being tracked for environmental exposure in a way the Vietnam vets were not. Every military person who serves in Iraq or Afghanistan is being checked out for traumatic brain injuries. This is an area of concern for war fighters and has been an area that has been overlooked.
”Unfortunately, there are a lot of war fighters that when they get out of the military they want to go home to their families and get the military experience over with. Often times they deny there are any issues going on with them. Now the Department of Veterans Affairs has opened the door for them to come in. Our agency, which is Regional Counseling Services, is part of the Department of Veterans Affairs, however we fall under a different director. But unlike the VA, we work only with war zone veterans - the people who have been in the war zones, who have specific issues. We don’t care how much money they make. We don’t care what their job was. We will see them if they served in a combat zone. We also see survivors of military sexual trauma.”
These services are completely free and freely offered.
Baker said, “The only charge our clients have is to grow, heal, and once again become well-adjusted members of the society that they left home to protect. We provide readjustment counseling, testing, and assessments for PTSD. We offer family counseling, which is something that is not offered through the Department of Veterans Affairs, and marital counseling where we have knowledge and resources we can provide for the veterans. PTSD is a serious anxiety disorder.”
Because of the intensity to the exposure of abnormal situations a chemical change reaction occurs in the brain. According to research, a person is unable to control the reaction your body and brain have to a traumatic event. Dealing with a threat increases blood sugar levels and oxygen throughout the body and different regions of the brain. Many people feel they shouldn’t have a response to conditions around them when they really have no control over it.
Baker said the Eureka Vet Center offers a very broad range of services including group sessions and an art group, which is something not offered at all Vet Centers. They have a travel group where they take people out into the community to help with their socialization skills. They have barbecues, luncheons, and open houses to allow the veterans to get to know each other in a social environment. Many combat veterans do not feel comfortable in these kinds of environments until they get to know you.
She recommended the 1999 film, “The Straight Story,” starring Richard Farnsworth. It’s the story of a man who rides his lawnmower across several states to see his brother. She said this movie just put it right out there in the way it explains combat-related PTSD.
Baker said, “There is no time limit as to how long PTSD can last. Several years ago after the first Gulf War, the war-related illness and injury study became a big part of identifying and developing what is now called the Gulf War illness. The VA went back and forth on whether or not the illness existed or not. A couple of months ago they came back and said, ‘Yes, Gulf War illness is a fact.’
”One of the things we do at the Vet Center is when we meet someone who has served in the Gulf War, we ask them a few questions and if they have any symptoms related to fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, or irritable bowel. If they do, we refer them to their primary care physician at the VA clinic, so they can send them to the war-related illness and injury study center where they do a week’s worth of really intense research and help identify those problems so these veterans can file for claims.
”The first Gulf War veterans returned from the war with parades and waving flags. The war was short, but unfortunately the impact of what they were exposed to has resulted in several unexplained cases of Lou Gehrig’s Disease, MS, irritable bowel, chronic fatigue, fibromylagia, as well as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. After the forgotten war of Korea we never thought we would put our veterans through that again, but these war fighters are the new forgotten warriors. They rarely identify themselves and they have been very difficult to reach.
”There is now emphasis on a new generation of war fighters and the depleted uranium, the chemical and the biological contaminants they may have been exposed to. There’s research being done to determine if the injections they were given prior to going into the war zone have affected their physical health. With all the medical and mental health issues that come from having served in a combat zone we need to be more aware of who our clients are. I wonder how many times we as clinicians forget to ask our clients if they served in the military. One simple question can give a lot of answers and we need to be asking that question. We should especially be asking women who never talk about their service in the military. Rarely do we ask them if they are a veteran because most of them do not identify themselves as veterans.”
Baker said they have found that when working with women war fighters all of them were in “non-combat” jobs. They worked behind a desk, drove a truck, cooked, and lived in the greenbelt for the most part. Nobody talks about these women driving convoys into the hot areas where they were put into situations where they were fired upon and perhaps returned fire. In the Middle East women have been assigned to combat teams, either with the Army or the Marines. They went out, were given weapons, went on patrol and searched the women who were detained in the homes. In Muslim countries it is not allowed for men to touch women, so they utilized these women as combat warriors.
Baker said, “Women now have confirmed kills, or blood trails, just as the males do. They are gunners in convoys and they are earning medals for valor just like the men. These women often come back to us diagnosed by the military with anxiety or depression. When we get them, we encourage them to go back and file a claim for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. What they have is not anxiety or depression. What they have is PTSD.”
Baker said a lot has changed since 1979. The centers now have to employ clinical staff, they have to be licensed, and they are able to do a lot more for the veterans than they used to. They have a mobile Vet Center, at which Durham is the social worker in charge. They go to the different communities and travel around seeking out veterans in need of assistance.
Baker said it is important to realize, “When you are with a veteran remember the sacrifices they made. Remember the men and women that they are and that they feel, cry, and every day live the memories of their experiences.”
To put things in a little bit better perspective members of the club were left with the following thoughts along with some very poignant photos, which unfortunately can’t be shown here. However, if you can picture what life might be like in a war zone, you might be a little bit more understanding when you are in the company of a combat veteran.
When a soldier comes home they may find it hard...
1. to listen to his son complain about being bored
2. to keep a straight face when people complain about potholes
3. to be tolerant of people who complain about the hassle of getting ready for work
4. to be understanding when a co-worker complains about a bad night’s sleep
5. to control his panic when his wife tells him to drive slower
6. to be compassionate when a businessman expresses a fear of flying
7. to keep from laughing when anxious parents say they are afraid to send their kids off to summer camp
8. to keep from ridiculing when someone complains about hot weather
9. to control his frustration when a colleague writes about his coffee being cold
10. to remain calm when his daughter complains about having to walk the dog
11. to be civil to people who complain about their jobs
12. to just walk away when someone says they only get two weeks of vacation a year
13. to be forgiving when someone says how hard it is to have a new baby in the house
14. the only thing harder than being a soldier is loving one
If you are a veteran, or know someone who needs assistance, call the Vet Center at 444-8271, or stop by 2830 G St., Suite A, Eureka.
And remember, Wed., Nov. 11 is Veterans Day. Say thanks next time you are in the company of a veteran.
REDWOOD TIMES PHOTO BY SUSAN GARDNER
Garberville Rotary Club President Peter Connolly, left, presents Mary Baker and Andy Durham, from the Vet Center in Eureka with young redwood trees. Baker and Durham gave a presentation last Tuesday on the subject of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.