Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health issue affecting anyone who has gone through an intense or prolonged trauma experience. Due to the life or death nature of their work, those in the military or first responders to tragic emergency situations often reap the whirlwind of traumatic stress. As they return to civilian life, many are left to carry a myriad of serious health issues. Unfortunately, depression, suicidal thoughts and actions often accompany PTSD’s extreme anxiety. The disorder has many varied characteristics, but often manifests in victims differently. The PTSD battle is real, if elusive.
Mark Taylor, now known as the Fireman Prophet and author of The Trump Prophecies wrote that after years as a First Responder firefighter in Orlando, Florida, he became sick and bedridden. Unable to work, doctors couldn’t figure out what was causing his multitudinous problems. During this time, though, God began to talk to Taylor, ultimately leading him to pen his bestselling Christian book and help launch a National Prayer coalition that rallied conservative Christians ahead of the pivotal election. PTSD and massive adrenal fatigue had sucked the life right out of the fireman-and it was a long, nutritional process to return to full health. The body’s response to extended trauma can manifest in a variety of ways. PTSD is sneaky.
Roy was a former college track star, a fresh-faced U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant when he arrived in Vietnam at the height of that conflict. Afterwards, he could never verbalize the horrors encountered there. Grateful to be alive and physically unscathed he returned to Texas and his waiting bride and set about the task of building a “normal” life. He confided, “I pushed every Vietnam memory into a carefully labeled compartment, padlocked it, with the intention of never, ever opening it.”
Decades later, Roy’s phone rang. A marine who had served in Roy’s unit (struggling in his own recovery) wanted to talk. This voice from Roy’s past dredged up every horror. “I don’t want to remember anything. I don’t want to talk about it and I suggest you don’t either,” he rebuffed his caller telling him to never call again. Roy was left at his kitchen sink in a cold sweat, shaking with heart palpitations. He hadn’t locked down his memories from the jungle, after all.
Every packed-down, festering emotion began to boil and surface at odd moments- in angry inexplicable outbursts and sweaty panic attacks. One medication led to another, which compounded these, “out-of-nowhere” personality changes and placed additional, unwelcome pressure on his marriage. Eventual VA counseling provided an outlet for the feelings but did little to address the root of his trauma.
Continuing PTSD medications have merged with memory problems, inappropriate outbursts, and “normal aging” issues. It is difficult to judge where one starts and the other ends. His family, assuming, “This is as good as it gets,” were left to tiptoe cautiously atop traumatic eggshells broken in the humid battlefields of Vietnam over 50 years ago.
Renowned Cherokee Artist, Michael “Pete” Peterson, served in the 4th Psychological Ops Group. He was tasked to work with South Vietnamese in counter-terrorist activities often involved in dirty bloody fighting. He was awarded a Bronze Star, “for killing a guy in Saigon.” His friends note that he was reluctant to speak of his war experiences. However, in an October 24, 1993 article in the Olathe Daily News written by Max Evans, the artist shared a bit of his troubles brought home from Nam. “I don’t see the ghosts much anymore. Although the smell of diesel fuel can bring back “the dragon,” a name Pete says Vietnam vets use for their shared experience.
In the piece, Peterson notes the intense war flashbacks have long affected his sleep. His wife would find him sitting up in bed dreaming- picking leeches off his legs or “Another night I had my hands on her chest trying to stop the bleeding.” The bleeding of a helicopter door gunner.” Art as therapy has been a help to Peterson. After the war, Pete attended the American Academy of Art. Michael Peterson’s work is popular and striking, often picturing soldiers or American Indians-has been featured in Time Life books as well as the National Vietnam Veteran’s Art Museum in Chicago, Illinois.
Long-standing military traditions historically have turned a blind eye to the serious mental and physical implications of extended trauma- until it positively couldn’t be avoided. Minimal “mental” health preparation was given to soldiers heading into battle, and scarcely more was offered to those encountering PTSD symptoms. Looking directly at the problem would require action, and the action was needed on the battlefield. The military priority was always the next mission.
Adding to the diagnosis problem, are shifting, often amorphous symptoms which first responders and military personnel don’t initially recognize as PTSD. Once labeled “nerves” or “battle fatigue,” evolving nomenclature and understanding of the disorder have helped. The concept however, still doesn’t jive well with traditional views of bravery, honor or a tough warrior mindset. Medical professionals are belatedly recognizing the broad base of symptoms patients present under a giant umbrella of PTSD, as well as its worrisome traveling companion, Suicide. Early screening hopes to aid in earlier diagnosis and proactive treatment.
Dr. Wendy Handley, now practicing in Bozeman, Montana, spent her second year of Internal Medicine residency at Fort Harrison VA Hospital in Boise, and an additional three years practicing at the Indianapolis Veteran’s Hospital. During her tenure in the VA system, Dr. Handley noted rising awareness and concerns for PTSD and Suicide screening, “The VA does make an effort to screen for suicide. I remember having to ask EVERY patient I saw in the primary care clinic about depression or suicidal thoughts. Then I had to document it for each patient, no matter what he or she was coming in for. I know suicide is a hot topic at the VA and there are definitely programs in place. I do remember it seemed a majority of the patients I saw had some mental illness, and the mental health services at the VA seemed over-run at times.”
The VA has historically adhered to a pharmaceutical and clinical counseling approach to treating PTSD and suicidal thoughts. Lately however, seeing the persistent shortcomings and rising suicide numbers, the VA has finally begun to broaden therapeutic treatment options to include alternatives such as exercise and even art therapies.
A KGUN 9 report aired June 6, 2019, interviewed Sandra Gallaher and Aubrey Rodriguez, two PTSD psychologists with the Tucson VA hospital who are seeing positive results for PTSD sufferers through alternative approaches such as yoga and meditation. “The therapies are very focused, they are very short term and they are very intensive, but for shorter periods of time, Gallagher said.
Rodriguez noted, “They do work, and they are work.” The two launched this promising residential treatment program two years ago; so the long term benefits reaped from the alternative approach are yet to be determined. For two months the intense patient treatment offers four or five hours of therapy each day. In that interview Rodriguez stated, “Its working! Since the start, 60 % of veterans no longer had impairing PTSD symptoms after the treatment. “For the most part, successful treatment means you leave here knowing you can do it,” Rodriguez said. “Because you just did it.”
Thankfully, PTSD attitudes are beginning to change both for active duty and those discharged from the military. Improvements don’t always follow as quickly as needed. Unfortunately, admitting to anger issues, panic attacks, sleeplessness or suicidal thoughts while on active duty continues to be, a certain way to ruin a military career and probably ensure a speedy medical discharge. Real warriors generally choose to suck it up and power through. Stateside, many trying to maintain their career find the task an uphill battle.
Vicki Johnson, holds a Master’s Degree in Military Psychology, and is all too familiar with this issue in a non-clinical setting. A long career in the Air Force during an era where the United States has been constantly involved in foreign conflicts has given Johnson a personal perspective she would rather not have. Stateside, at Fort Drum Army Base, Johnson works administratively with Air Force Battlefield Airmen in Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) in New York State. Serious PTSD issues, including suicide, she reports, are not unusual.
In the Air Force, TACP does everything from engaging enemy forces as a battlefield airman, direct air strikes in close proximity to friendly forces (in other terms, offers close air support), and directs surface-to-surface fire and air-to-surface fire. Air Force TACP communicates with both aircraft and ground vehicles to support military members on the ground. In doing so these battlefield airmen often operate outside of a deployed Airbase or Army installation. This Special Ops career field is a demanding job, with members either deployed or continually training for the next lengthy deployment. The TACP motto is self-explanatory. “100% and then some!” TACP member, Josh Branson, gave his 100% and came home with some extra problems. Johnson shared his story.
“Josh came into the unit in 2010, I think,” Johnson “In-processed” him and, because he was an acting First Sergeant working with her on the Commander’s Support Staff. “We were friends. He was nice- he had a sharp wit- and we talked a lot about his deployments in general terms.”
Josh, like so many others, didn’t often talk directly about his PTSD. Sometimes during their conversations, Vicki noted, it was hinted at. “He was on his way to an Alaska assignment,” she said. “There was a problem with his orders. The medical people there didn’t want him- because of the PTSD code that was in his records. His unit assignment was cancelled…However, his loft listing remained ON.” This was an administrative military boondoggle, Johnson feared that would land him in trouble. “You have to go, and then figure out the confusion once you get there.” Josh agreed, and showed up in Alaska. Once the processing snafu was acknowledged on the Alaska end, new orders were cut to reassign Josh to a different Base in Alaska-presumably with better medical facilities.
After this move, Vicki only heard from Josh sporadically. “I told him there were some things he just needed to let go. Some fights, just aren’t worth fighting.” Apparently, PTSD wouldn’t allow him to let go. His diagnosis led to being booted from his military career field, and moved once again to another assignment. Josh feared this was a precursor to a medical discharge. The rejection, led to greater anxiety, more depression.
“The last time I heard from him, Josh was preparing for the Warrior Games with his service dog. He messaged me and asked “How’s the glue that holds the Blue together?” That’s what he always called me,” she said. ”Our daughter married a guy in his unit over there, so… we talked about that a bit.” There was nothing to indicate Josh was in crisis. PTSD however, is a well-camouflaged enemy.
It’s been four years, Vicki Johnson recalls since she received the bad news in May, 2015. “The next thing I knew, he committed suicide. There was a hitch in her voice as she told the story, devoid of any specifics. She added, “His service dog, broke through the garage door to get to him,” Many afflicted with PTSD, she shares, are now given service dogs to help them cope.
“I heard he left letters to his family and friends- And, scathing letters to the Air Force.” Johnson was solemn and matter of the fact as she relayed Josh’s story. “I heard he pretty much held the Air Force responsible for his ongoing problems.” Sgt. Branson left behind a devastated wife and several teenage children to pick up the shattered pieces. Eventually, they moved back to New York State. Josh’s family holds an annual race to honor his memory and to raise awareness and funds for a Veteran Outreach program. Life goes on.
Mike Johnson, Vicki’s husband served in multiple deployments to the Mid-East serving as a radio maintainer to the J-techs. “He saw action and a lot of it.” Serving in Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, she shares that the “Ops tempo was very high with lots of training, TDY’s and deployments.” As he served in the heat of those conflicts, Mike and his men were rocketed every day, and his base was almost overrun. “They were prepping expecting that to happen.” Mike is standing near her as she talks to me on the telephone, telling his story for him. Occasionally, I hear Mike add a fact or confirm a date. If I need to talk to him for the interview, she tells me, he will talk to me. He is content to audit.
Back and neck problems and a serious knee injury along the way left Mike 90% disabled. These physical problems coupled with PTSD have had a serious impact on the Johnson’s lives.
Asked what PTSD looks like to them, it doesn’t take Vicki long to come up with a list. “Mike has angry moments… and night terrors, as well as anxiety. He’s become more and more agoraphobic and now, he rarely leaves the house. Picking her words cautiously, she adds that since her husband’s service, “Mike is very, hyper- vigilant” should he happen to see Middle Easterners.
The Johnson’s have taken advantage of counseling services through the VA. Vicki doesn’t indicate much progress has been made. “I go a lot of places by myself.”
21 Veterans a day are committing suicide. Hopelessness and the belief that PTSD cannot be conquered has created this epidemic. At a town hall meeting in 2016, during the last Presidential Campaign, Veteran Chad Robichaux stood and asked Candidate Trump- to curb this problem- if he would allow the VA to reinstitute the faith-based methods which the Obama administration had defunded in 2008. The answer was a resounding, “Yes.” Although, according to the former Marine and MMA champion, “The Faith-based program they came up with is not what I would have wanted.” What developed at the VA, according to Robichaux, relies on faith groups promoting the available VA clinical initiatives- which not only have poor statistical results, he adds frankly, “They didn’t work for me-at all.”
Robichaux, founder of Mighty Oaks Foundation, has reached out for the past 10 years to active duty military, Vets, first responders and their spouses who are dealing with PTSD, depression and suicidal thoughts in a faith-based initiative with proven results. Robichaux found faith in Jesus to be the answer to his own desperate battle with PTSD. “I spent many years being treated, I believe, incorrectly with medicines and clinical care. Soul wounds,” he elaborated profoundly, “can’t be treated with counseling and drugs. Soul wounds need to be treated spiritually. We have found a spiritual solution to those wounds at Mighty Oaks Foundation and that’s why we exist today.”
“We live in a broken world,” concluded the former Force Re-con Marine. “We are exposed to evil. We see it. We experience and participate in things that God never created us to see. If we are not resilient and spiritually prepared, there will be serious consequences.”
*Watch for the full interview with Chad Robichaux in the upcoming article, The Long Road Home from Trauma.