December 17, 2017

Veterans battle post-traumatic stress in the aftermath of war

U.S. Air Force veteran and Webster University student James Taylor did not know being stuck in a Starbucks drive-thru would affect him so seriously.   

Taylor’s wife sat beside him in the passenger seat, while his two children sat in the back. Other cars and the business tightly boxed them in. His daughter began to cry, and nothing could calm her. Taylor saw no way out, but suddenly felt the need to escape.

Taylor is among the 11 to 20 percent of veterans who served in the Iraq or Afghanistan wars and suffer from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  He said he never knows when something will negatively affect him.

“A trigger of mine is my kids,” Taylor said. “If they’re trapped in a way I can’t fix and I can’t get them out of it, kind of like for my troops, I start freaking out.”

Taylor developed PTSD during his time in the Air Force.  He served for 13 years and deployed to Afghanistan, Malaysia, and several other countries before the military decided he needed to retire due to his symptoms.

Dr. Michele Spoont said admitting to a problem or PTSD related effects is difficult for many veterans. Spoont works as a researcher for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and has conducted multiple studies on PTSD.

“Most people when they come back think, ‘[PTSD will] go away with time. I just have to get back to my life,’” Spoont said. “And for many people, it does go away with time, but for some people, it doesn’t. It gets worse.”

Photo credit: Hanna Holthaus Taylor's trauma led him to create a plan of how to commit suicide. His wife's love and support pulled him out of darkness and into surviving the struggle.

Photo credit: Hanna Holthaus
Taylor’s trauma led him to create a plan of how to commit suicide. His wife’s love and support pulled him out of darkness and into surviving the struggle.

In April 2015, Taylor realized his symptoms were not something he could ignore. He experienced a flashback to his time overseas. He sat in his bunk, watching television when suddenly everything came rushing back to him.

“It jacked me up,” Taylor said.  “I had a full blown, they call it a flashback, anxiety attack, panic, whatever. I heated up to what felt like 300 degrees. I clammed up. I couldn’t really move. It was something I’d never experienced before.”

Taylor received professional help to control and lessen his symptoms later that year. Many veterans never make it to that step for fear of seeming powerless, said James Messenger, a former U.S. Marine and Webster University student.

“You gotta be willing to swallow your pride and admit to somebody else you have problems,” Messenger said. “Most people don’t want to do that. That’s the weakness.”

Weakness in the military does not only refer to physical strength. Many soldiers feel they have to step up to the plate and be an emotional rock for their troops, Taylor said.

As Taylor moved up Air Force ranks, he sometimes oversaw 400 airmen. He felt accomplished when he could help them and believed he could empathize with them more than a person with no military or mental health experience. He also recognized the detriment of holding in his own feelings.

“What happened to me was I let it build. I let it build for years,” Taylor said. “I didn’t talk to anybody about it because I had to be the strong shoulder. I had to be the one who people could come to my office and talk about serious, serious things. I never got it out until finally, I crashed.”

To combat the silence surrounding PTSD, the nonprofit group Mission22 has tried to start the conversation about the seriousness of the disorder, said comp

Reporting by Hanna Holthaus

Reporting by Hanna Holthaus

any CEO Sara Dawdy.  She said the group aimed to give both veterans and their families the necessary tools to combat PTSD and find appropriate treatments.

Dawdy had both personal and professional experience in helping veterans adjust to civilian life.  Her fiance, Magnus Johnson, was a Green Beret in the U.S Army, and she discovered upon his return that reacclimating would not be as easy as they hoped.

“He thought he could fall back into life as usual, just like before war,” Dawdy said. “That wasn’t the case. Not at all. It was the complete opposite.”

Witnessing the horrors of war can change a person’s outlook on various situations, Dawdy explained.  She had met many families while working for Mission22 who did not expect their veteran to return so affected.

Dawdy recognized veterans’ transitions home could be difficult for families. Despite the sometimes difficult transition home, she believed seeking PTSD treatment felt much easier when loved ones supported their veterans, even during the rough patches.

Talking about PTSD could be intimidating for all parties, Dawdy said, but acknowledging a problem instead of sweeping it under the rug lessened future complications and heartache.

“They both say the same thing: the family doesn’t know how to talk with [the veteran], and the veteran doesn’t know how to talk with [the family],” Dawdy said. “Just talk to each other. There isn’t an angle.  There isn’t a certain way. You just have to start the conversation.”

When Taylor retired from the Air Force in January of this year, he said he and his wife had to learn how to live with each other again. The transition, Taylor said, was hard. They found themselves fighting over seemingly small things, like whether or not to run the dishwasher.

While Taylor began therapy to treat his PTSD symptoms and suicidal behaviors, the couple attended marriage counseling.  Taylor soon discovered his wife suspected his mental health problems for years. He had not known she noticed a change and felt shocked to hear she did not  always recognize him after his time overseas.

“To hear [my wife] say, ‘you’re a different person, and sometimes not a good person’ was hard,” Taylor said.

As more time passed since Taylor’s retirement, the couple grew closer.  Her support meant the world to him, and Taylor said he did not know what he would do without her or their two children. When Taylor feels suicidal or needs to work through a problem, he calls her before anyone else. Accepting her help has not only benefitted his life, but also their marriage.

Having support from family, friends, and other veterans helps soldiers cope with returning home, but sometimes more formal treatment is necessary said Jason Blakemore, a U.S Army veteran and Webster University veterans’ counselor.

One of the most important steps for veterans to take, according to Blakemore, is the first one. The veteran needs to admit to a problem and seek help. Only then can Blakemore and other counselors, psychologists and psychiatrists truly help veterans begin the healing process.

Blakemore recognized different types of therapy could work depending on the veteran. Some responded best to animal therapy, while others prefered cognitive or group therapy.  Blakemore favored a solution based therapy that reminded veterans of all their positive actions during their service.

“You’re going to find out more about them on a personal level and build on their successes and get them out of the swing of focusing on the negatives,” Blakemor

Photo credit: Hanna Holthaus

Photo credit: Hanna Holthaus. James Taylor is a graduate Webster student majoring in Interactive Digital Media.

e said. “Because the work and the sacrifice, and with PTSD we’re usually talking about combat veterans, there’s a lot to build on.”

When therapy is not enough, many counselors send veterans to psychiatrists for possible medications. Taylor said taking medicine to manage PTSD symptoms can be harder for veterans than going to counseling because veterans liked to believe their willpower was stronger than any prescription.

Taylor avoided taking medication for his symptoms until a doctor normalized the concept. Taylor described his interaction with the psychiatrist as eye-opening.  If the medications were helping him make it through the day, Taylor said, he had no room to question his need or their effectiveness.

“We know like 10 percent about our own brains,” Taylor said. “And it’s just another organ, and people with problems with other organs, like their heart, they take heart medication and stuff like that. But when it comes to the brain, people have this stigmatism. Me included.”

According to Dr. Michele Spoont, both prescriptions and counseling can help those with PTSD cope with what they have seen or done.  Spoont has conducted multiple studies on PTSD as a researcher for the VA and said treatment aims to help life, not dictate it. If veterans saw more problems arising, they should speak with their doctors.

Spoont liked to remind veterans, however, that neither option is a cure-all. Both help make life manageable, but memories of war will persist. The veteran simply needs to remember to push through them.

“The more isolated the event becomes, the more it doesn’t affect your thinking about everything and the less you’ll suffer from it,”  Spoont said. “But you’ll still have the memory.”

According to the VA, traumatic memories associated with a veteran’s PTSD have been shown to increase suicidal thoughts. Among Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, the VA found those suffering from PTSD were three times as likely to report suicidal behaviors.

For decades, the topic of suicide has been buried, Dawdy said. Mission22 aims to make the conversation less terrifying and invite people to open up about their thoughts in order to prevent more unnecessary deaths.

“[Veterans] weren’t being selfish,” Dawdy said. “They weren’t doing something criminal. They had no more capacity for pain. They felt [suicide] was their best answer. That’s the crime. The crime is that we didn’t reach them sooner.”

To loved ones left behind, knowing soldiers lost the battle to suicide can be harder than war itself.

Webster student Cpl. Tom Palozola committed suicide on May 27, 2017. Click on image to read story.

When former U.S. Marine Cpl. Tom Palozola died, none of his friends or family were prepared. They all thought he would successfully combat his problems. They were blindsided, said Palozola’s friend and fellow Marine, Joseph Donarumma.

Palozola was not the first friend Donarumma lost to suicide, but his death hit Donarumma hard.

“Putting my friend in the ground was probably the hardest thing I’ve had to do in my life,” Donarumma said. “Harder than any stupid shit I saw in Iraq. Coming back, I’ve lost more brothers to suicide than I did in war. It’s disgusting and debilitating. Every time you get a phone call that one of your brothers is gone, it hacks you to your knees.”

Like Donarumma, Taylor had lost many fellow airmen to suicide and at times had even considered it himself. Taylor said his cumulated 13 years in the Air Force made thinking about death easy.

“When it came to suicidal thoughts, I’ve done enough. Did the 13 years matter? I don’t know,” Taylor said. “I know I can end all of this. I imagine that’s what a lot of [veterans] go through when they finally do it. They’ve already decided they could have died anyway.”

Spreading suicide awareness was an important step Taylor said, but he hated focusing on the estimated 22 veterans who took their own lives each day. Accepting suicidal thoughts became easier for Taylor when he thought about how many other soldiers died everyday. He said focusing on a new number would make life easier to live.

“I think they should focus on- and I don’t even know the number- but how many people call the suicide hotline and get help,” Taylor said. “How many people go to a counselor and get help. How many people were going to take their lives and didn’t. What’s that number? I hope it’s like 3000 a day. That should be the number we’re talking about.”

Share this post

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail