0601WARAUDListen to Dr. Chris M. Crowe, a Veteran’s Administration psychologist, talk about post traumatic stress disorder
Helium has now seeped from all the red, white and blue balloons that lined Green Street for the Memorial Day parade. The cheering crowds have shuffled home and all the barbecue has been eaten.
The annual parade seemed to take on a rejuvenated fervor this year.
Maybe it was because it's an election year. Or perhaps it was the bright-eyed twenty-something veterans amid the slew of gray-haired vets of Vietnam, Korea and World War II who helped breathed new life into the holiday.
Tim Hopton was among that new batch of young Iraq and Afghanistan vets Monday. As a Marine, the Flowery Branch resident served in Afghanistan for 10 months and has been home now for nearly three years.
Hopton said when he returned home in June 2005, there wasn't much organized support in Hall County for the veterans of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"During holidays - Memorial Day, Veterans' Day, the Fourth of July - there's a lot of support," Hopton said. "But for the rest of the time, our country's war weary. People are not as worried about the war on terror as they are about gas prices."
As the war in Iraq rages into its sixth year, some Americans, including veterans themselves, are questioning the quality of health care and benefits the government provides to soldiers and Marines returning home from the front lines of war.
A recently released study by RAND Corp., a California-based nonprofit research institution, estimated that 18.5 percent of the 1.7 million troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan return home suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
And in the Georgia Supreme Court, lawyers are seeking a new trial for Iraq war veteran Pfc. Alberto Martinez, who was convicted of stabbing and burning a fellow infantryman during a night of drunken partying just days after the soldiers returned to Fort Benning in Columbus from Iraq. The convicted soldier's lawyer is appealing Martinez's 2006 murder conviction and life sentence on the basis that Martinez's previous lawyer did not bring to the jury's attention that Martinez suffered from PTSD from his time in combat.
As national lawmakers mull over bills to increase Veterans Affairs funding and expand educational benefits for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, the focus turns to the lives of local soldiers as they return home from war.
Coming home: It's an adjustment
Hopton said there's no doubt; it felt good to step out of the airplane and onto American soil at Dobbins Air Force Base in Marietta.
"Coming back, obviously, is a very joyous occasion," he said. "It takes a little bit of adjustment ... It would've been nice to have grief counselors on hand then, because we lost a Marine. It would've been nice to have veterans groups at the base then, too, to hand out cards with information or just to let us know that they're there for us."
Hopton said he was overjoyed to see his wife and three children, the youngest of which he met for the first time at the base hangar that hot day in late June.
He knew even then that the years ahead would be trying. He was warned that transitioning from days filled with tanks and explosions to days of "American Idol" gossip and bedtime stories would be difficult.
"Civilians cannot grasp the emotional trauma and the emotional strain a soldier or Marine suffers while overseas not knowing if he'll make it back home," Hopton said. "A big adjustment was leaving the military life, which is very structured, and looking for jobs."
Hopton said he hasn't been diagnosed with PTSD, but sometimes wonders if he has it.
Dr. Chris M. Crowe, a clinical psychologist with the Atlanta VA Medical Center in Decatur, has spent three years as part of a specialty treatment team that treats soldiers and Marines for psychological problems resulting from combat-related trauma. He estimates he has heard the stories and concerns of more than 1,000 Georgia veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan while treating them for post-traumatic stress disorder.
"They come back wanting to re-establish relationships with their loved ones and with their families," Crowe said. "They come back with a lot of concern about being able to provide for their families, to be good fathers, good husbands, good wives, good mothers. They also come back with needs to pick up where they left off with educational pursuits, their jobs, their careers.
"Pretty much life as you and I know it day-to-day has been put on hold," he said. "I think it's really helpful for the American public to understand that while they're serving, they live with a constant threat and anticipation of being attacked all the time. And so for extended periods of time, they live with this threat of death, injury to themselves and other members of their team. And that's really difficult just to turn off once you re-enter American soil again."
Doctor confirms national PTSD averages
Crowe said the VA's national estimates for the percentage of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with PTSD jive with the RAND study.
"About 80 percent are actually able to recover pretty well on their own," he said. "And about 18 to 20 percent, is the figure we have right now, develop post-traumatic stress disorder. Some folks suggest the estimate may be higher ... because of the stigma with mental health issues, so there may be some under reporting."
Crowe said the majority of PTSD patients he's seeing are in their early 20s and were in the infantry that served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said the trauma of war affects everyone, and he also sees career military men and women in their 30s, 40s and 50s.
Crowe said the way in which the war is being fought overseas could be more psychologically taxing on soldiers than previous wars.
"I'm not an expert on Vietnam or World War II, so I can't make firm comparisons, but I can tell you for folks serving particularly in Iraq, and in Afghanistan, there is no well-identified enemy," he said. "Anyone, men, women, children could be agents of death for our soldiers and Marines."
He said the circumstances in Iraq and Afghanistan are such that no one can be trusted. There are no standard rules of engagement that are being followed, which leave soldiers on guard all the time.
"There's no way to discriminate who's relatively safe and who's relatively dangerous," Crowe said. "So the body has to stay on guard all the time. The body is flooded with adrenaline all the time."
"And I think it's that prolonged, protracted period of stress in addition to multiple horrendous events that are experiences that lead to such a high rate of psychological problems for these men and women," he said. "It's horrible."
PTSD hits home
Gainesville resident Neal Thompson knows all too well the psychological toll the war in Iraq and Afghanistan takes on soldiers.
Thompson was a cavalry scout in the National Guard and served in Iraq for almost a year. He served on the front lines of the war after he left for Iraq in 2005, his father said.
Roughly three years ago, Thompson was severely injured when an individual explosive device detonated, damaging parts of his face and body.
According to Neal Thompson's father, Richard Thompson, the 35-year-old Iraq veteran has been home for two years. The veteran now works nights as a security officer at Glidden Paint. Neal Thompson did not respond to interview requests.
Richard Thompson, himself a veteran of the Korean War, said his son is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and chooses to spend his days mostly alone. He said his son was undergoing readjustment counseling through VA services, but refused to return because the psychological sessions caused him extreme emotional anguish.
"He was a very outspoken, happy guy," Richard Thompson said of his son's demeanor prior to deployment. "He said, ‘I can hang, pop.' He was very optimistic. Now he's very introverted, and it bothers me.
"He says ‘Just leave me alone. I just want to be alone with my dog,'" he said. "He wasn't hurt as bad physically as he was mentally."
The father said he had to prod Neal Thompson to attend a decoration ceremony at the request of Gov. Sonny Perdue.
"He didn't want to go, but I made him go because it's things like that that will bring him out of his shell," he said. "He will work through it. I did."
There is treatment for PTSD
Crowe said the first thing veterans suffering from PTSD need is a great deal of understanding.
"By that I don't mean just sympathy of empathy," he said. "Adjusting our expectations about how long it may take to readjust is going to be helpful, to be very respectful of these men and women and acknowledge that what they've been through ... is going to take some time to heal."
Crowe said symptoms of PTSD include frequent nightmares of events a veteran actually endured while in the service, emotional numbness, sleeplessness and being easily startled by noises. He said if these symptoms persist after six months of returning home, he recommends the veteran seeks treatment.
"The key, too, is avoidance," he said. "If the veteran continues to avoid people and places they used to enjoy, those are all important things to notice ... I think we need to encourage them to seek treatment and continue treatment."
Exposure therapy is the current PTSD treatment most widely implemented in VA hospitals, Crowe said.
The treatment takes place over a period of many weeks, where a veteran will be asked to review, in detail, all the traumatic events that he or she may have experienced in the combat zone, Crowe said.
Typically, a psychologist will ask the veteran to discuss each memory, starting with the least distressing. Through several sessions over a period of time, the soldier is asked to recollect a memory over and over again.
"The memory starts losing some of its emotional punch," Crowe said. "And the veteran is able to let that memory be stored as a piece of the past, and it loses some of its power to keep the person hyper-aroused and upset."
Crowe said some soldiers experience symptoms of PTSD while serving in the military, and seek treatment overseas. Others don't experience symptoms until they come home, or even years after being out of the service.
VA health care: Are soldiers' needs being met?
Crowe said a veteran referred to the Atlanta VA Medical Center for PTSD treatment will have an appointment scheduled within 14 days. And if a veteran is more distress, they are seen right away.
"We take walk-ins," Crowe said. "I think that's important in the outcome, as well, for people to receive treatment when they need it."
Crowe said when he first joined the specialty treatment team at the Atlanta VA Medical Center, he was one of three staff members. Two-and-a-half years later, he is one of 28 staff members, he said. Amazingly, he said, the funding for psychological treatment for vets is coming through.
"Anything we have asked for and said that we need, we get pretty much," Crowe said.
He also said the VA is preparing for the future. "I expect that many, many, many more folks will be coming in and will be needing treatment," he said.
According to highlights from an April VA conference published on the VA Web site, there's more funding heading to VA mental health programs. Antonette Zeiss, associate chief consultant for the Office of Mental Health Services for the Veterans Health Administration in Washington, D.C., said their fiscal year 2009 budget is calling for $531 million for the enhancement of VA mental health services.
Tim Hopton said long lines but good health care typify VA service. "The benefits are there, you just have to be persistent," he said.
Lorena Moss, wife of Gainesville Spec. Channing Moss, who was severely wounded in Afghanistan, said the health care the Army has provided her husband has been top-notch. A rocket-propelled grenade pierced Moss' abdomen last year when insurgents attacked his humvee.
Channing Moss, father of two young daughters, is now recovering at Eisenhower Army Medical Center in Augusta. On Friday, the Georgia Association of Broadcasting will honor him as "Man of the Year" at the Atlanta Hilton in Marietta.
Lorena Moss said the Army hospital is a little overcrowded and noticeably understaffed, but once doctors and nurses are able to get to her husband, the treatment is good.
"The doctors have been on top of it," she said. "But sometimes it takes a little bit of time for them to respond to a nonemergency. Sometimes he has to wait quite a while."
Pfc. Nathon Bagwell is a soldier from Gillsville who was wounded in Iraq last month when an enemy bullet struck the left side of his stomach, injuring his left kidney and intestines and shattering a vertebra in his lower spine.
Bagwell is now recovering at the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in Augusta. His mother, Carolyn Bagwell, said the Augusta VA hospital is also understaffed, but her son is receiving a high quality of medical care from doctors.
Vets helping vets
Doctors and nurses can only take a veteran so far on the journey to healing the scars of war.
That's why Hopton said he is reviving the James E. Willis VFW Post No. 8452 on Delta Drive. He said the Gainesville VFW post had degenerated into little more than an unwelcoming bar brawl, and with the lack of support he observed upon returning from Afghanistan, he's taking on the challenge as the post's new quartermaster to make it a place where new vets can come to talk with other veterans.
"Sometimes it helps to talk to people who have gone through and seen what you have probably seen," Hopton said. "I think for Iraq and Afghanistan soldiers, we can talk to them and take them to the VA hospital and help them with their needs."
He's in the process of building a 2,000-square-foot addition to the building in an effort to provide for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans as they trickle home from war.
The post now has two new pool tables, a refinished bar, flat screen TVs as well as two computers to allow veterans to check the status of their benefits. The addition will expand the banquet hall to allow more of the post's roughly 200 members space to meet.
Of those 200 members, Hopton said, only 15 are veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We're trying to bring in more entertainment that the young guys will like," he said. "We have wing night on Wednesdays and karaoke night on Saturdays, too."
Walter Calderon, a Marine Corps veteran who served in Vietnam, is also reviving the Marine Corps League, Upper Chattahoochee Detachment in Gainesville.
Calderon said his goal is to help Marines stay in touch with the VA and to help them get re-established in the community as they come back from overseas.
"They're coming back with a lot of mental problems," Calderon said. "The fighting we did (in Vietnam) was really different that what they're doing. They just need a lot of camaraderie ... that's why we re-enacted this. We hope to help some of the younger guys by having them talk to the older guys."
Richard Thompson said that although his son is struggling to return to his life after war, he's proud to say he and all three of his sons served in the military.
"We love this country and that's why we're willing to lay down our lives for other people's freedoms," he said. "We're warriors. That's our fiber - that's what we're made of."