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PTSD – The invisible casualties of war

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They’re riding with some of their buddies in a military-style vehicle on the Plain of Reeds, a vast wetlands depression near Cambodia, during the Viet Nam War. It’s January 1970, and their air cushion hovercraft is moving speedily through the thick, watery brush. The driver is carefully maneuvering around any suspicious looking obstacles that may pose a threat.

Suddenly, like an enormous clap of thunder, a deafening sound hoists the vehicle into the air, throwing its occupants several yards in every direction. When they hit the soggy terrain, stunned and semi-conscious, they see a shower of blood from open wounds covering their bodies, and the pain descends upon them like a malevolent blanket of bone-crushing agony. Sgt. Gil Brown’s left knee is ripped apart by shrapnel and his left forearm has a gaping hole through it. Their uniforms have been shredded by the force of the blast and, as they lie dazed and slightly submerged in the smoldering water and jagged debris, they begin to wonder what death will be like.

About a hundred yards away, another hovercraft begins to pick up speed and pulls up alongside the badly injured group of soldiers. They were taken to a hospital in Cam Ranh Bay, where they spent several weeks recuperating from multiple injuries. This is just one incident out of countless others that took the lives of 58,000 Americans and the limbs of more than two hundred thousand others during one of the most tumultuous eras in the history of our country. It was a time of violent anti-war protests from coast-to-coast, as college students took over dormitories and inner-city residents took to the streets and held draft-card burning demonstrations. Heavyweight boxing champ Muhammed Ali refused to be conscripted, citing his opposition to the war. 

Other young men were dodging the draft by fleeing to Canada. Hollywood actress Jane Fonda, an anti-war activist, was photographed wearing a helmet and sitting on a North Vietnamese military vehicle, openly consorting with the enemy. At the same time, a half-million of our soldiers were fighting an enemy halfway around the world, while the country they were fighting for seemed to be turning against them. As the casualties piled up in front of them, one wonders what it must have been like for these intrepid warriors to hear the depressing news from back home, while trying to carry out their mission against an intractable enemy on their own turf. In addition to the observable physical injuries suffered by our troops, there were an incalculable number of invisible injuries. The emotional damage sustained in combat became known as “shell shock” in World War One. 

The term was used for those soldiers who had endured a continuous barrage of bombing and near death experiences that left them feeling panicked and unable to function rationally. It took a few more wars, many more casualties and years of concentrated psychological study before the condition morphed into what is now known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). People considered at risk include combat soldiers, victims of natural disasters, concentration camp survivors and victims of violent crime. In some cases, war veterans have experienced “survivor’s guilt,” for remaining alive while others died, often right in front of their eyes. When these vets return to civilian life, they are likely to view the world very differently than their friends and associates who have not experienced such traumatic events.

Vietnam veteran and Purple Heart recipient, Sergeant Gil Brown and Iraq War veteran, Lt. Colonel Ginger Simonson are very familiar with PTSD and the treatment being used to deal with this very real malady. Gil and Ginger are facilitators at the Work Force Solutions building at 1300 Teasley Lane in Denton. “Ginger and I talk to these soldiers, and help refer them to the proper agencies to help them,” Gil said. “Some need counseling by a psychologist that understands trauma, while some may need medication for depression and anxiety, which is a huge part of their emotional struggle. The Peer-to Peer counseling is wonderful and I encourage them to be a part of it. Ginger and I are court mentors at the Denton County Veterans Treatment Court Program.  When young men come in with problems with DUI’s, for example, they go through a lengthily screening process to see if they qualify to be entered into a program where they are assigned a mentor, a “battle buddy” as we like to call it.”

Ginger and Gil helped establish the Denton County Veterans Coalition because the VA was not telling vets what was available to them. “Veterans were falling through the cracks,” said Colonel Simonson, adding, “We address emergency financial assistance, homeless issues, mental health issues and transportation and unemployment issues. The coalition addresses multifaceted support areas, such as career employment, housing, education/training, medical care, psychological health, etc. We also identify the places they can go for their needs.  We are building a network covering the entire county where a phone call or an email referral can connect a veteran with the right solution.” At present there are 9-10 community partners, which includes the Texas Workforce commission, and Denton County MHMR Center, and Texas Woman’s University, and wellness program to name a few.  www.veteransofdentoncounty.org/services/application is one website for an application request.

This is one in a series of articles that will illustrate the PTSD condition and how it’s being treated.

Bob Weir is a long-time Flower Mound resident and former local newspaper editor. In addition, Bob has 7 published books that include “Murder in Black and White,” “City to Die For,” “Powers that Be,” “Ruthie’s Kids,” “Deadly to Love,” “Short Stories of Life and Death” and “Out of Sight,” all of which can be found on Amazon.com and other major online bookstores.

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