Valdosta Daily Times

Local News

April 8, 2012

Battling PTSD and misperception all soldiers have it

VALDOSTA — The case of Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales emphasizes a growing stereotype of American military personnel ready to snap. But many soldiers and observers disagree.

Bales stands accused of killing several civilians, mostly children, in a violent rampage in Afghanistan. Since, commentators have speculated on Bales’ four deployments into combat during the past decade, a brain injury, other injuries, financial problems at home, witnessing the deaths of friends, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder.

The incident spurred Time magazine columnist Joe Klein to recently write that focusing on possible reasons for Bales’ actions reinforces the wrong stereotypes and does a disservice to those who have served admirably.

“There has been little acknowledgement that the overwhelming majority of our veterans – even the overwhelming majority of those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries – have come home to lead productive and, often, inspiring lives,” Klein writes. “The unfairness of laying the burden of this stereotype on them, after they assumed the burden of fighting impossible wars for the rest of us, is infuriating.”

As one soldier told The Times, he believes 99 percent of returning military do not have PTSD and those who do need counseling. “They’re not broken,” he said. “They’re bent.”

Still, of the 2.4 million troops who have been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq since September 2001, “estimates suggest that at least 18 percent of those deployed suffer from severe depression or post-traumatic stress, and over 19 percent have suffered a traumatic brain injury,” according to information from Valdosta Veterans First, A Community Blueprint Initiative.

Valdosta is part of Community Blueprint’s national pilot program to smoothly integrate returning soldiers into civilian life.

Valdosta Veterans First’s overview notes that “symptoms of severe mental health difficulties are as high as 35 percent among Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom veterans and only about half are seeking treatment.”

Along with reintegration, employment, education, family strength, life skills, volunteerism and homelessness, behavioral health is one of the eight areas targeted by the Community Blueprint program to help returning veterans.

Valdosta’s Greenleaf Counseling Center has been working with returning veterans for several years. Greenleaf counselors must balance a delicate situation. They must help these soldiers deal with the memories and reacquaint themselves with the world of “back home” all the while remembering that most of these warriors will have to return to combat. Soldiers had to manage being home while maintaining a certain level of aggressiveness for when they were re-deployed for combat.

In the past, when soldiers came home from war, they were often finished with war. In Vietnam, most soldiers served a tour of duty and came home; however, they could opt to serve additional tours. In World War II, military personnel served the war’s duration before returning home. Modern soldiers may serve a year-long tour, come home for several months then be deployed on another tour.

The situation creates a new set of circumstances. Today’s soldier may be haunted by the past, anxious in the present, and worried about the future.

Given the close proximity, Greenleaf has worked with Moody Air Force Base personnel for many years. In the fall of 2008, Greenleaf began treating personnel from other bases.

Kim Lerstang, Greenleaf referral development coordinator, says the center has treated hundreds of military personnel in the past four years.

Greenleaf counsels special forces, airmen, sailors, soldiers, Marines, Guardsmen and Reserves, various ranks, men and women, most young from their late teens to early 20s though some are older.

Some deal solely with the effects of PTSD: Anger, depression, coping with the move from a world of military black-and-white to the grays of civilian and family cultures. They have seen children blown to pieces then see their own children throw a tantrum because a video game doesn’t work.

Others come to Greenleaf with more complex symptoms of drug and alcohol abuse stemming from post-traumatic stress disorder.

In Quitman, Mike Randall developed Hopes & Dreams Riding Facility to reintegrate his veteran sons into civilian life. Seeing their success, Randall created a program that brings PTSD and injured military personnel and their families to a few days of horseback riding and the great outdoors.

While Hopes & Dreams Riding Facility has helped many suffering airmen, soldiers, Marines and sailors, the program has often benefited from active military personnel and families who volunteer their time and efforts to helping their comrades.

It’s as important to remember those military volunteers as much as their colleagues in need.

As Eric Greitens, a former Navy SEAL and leader of Mission Continues, told Time, “You don’t want to embed in the culture’s consciousness the idea that everyone who comes back is somehow damaged. What I’ve seen is out of that pain can come wisdom. Out of that stress can come resilience.”

For more on this story and other local news, subscribe to The Valdosta Daily Times e-Edition, or our print edition

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