Ms. Jones got off the bus and began the two-block walk to her apartment after working all day at the office. She had made the short trek every evening for more than a year and was glad to be living so close to public transportation. As she turned a corner, about 50 feet from the rooming house, a shadowy figure grabbed her from behind and pulled her into an alleyway between the buildings.
She was beaten and sexually assaulted before her attacker ran off and disappeared into the night. During her ordeal she felt sure that she was about to die. She was treated at a nearby hospital, but her physical injuries were minor; the serious injuries occurred in her brain. Ms. Jones could never again walk alone at night, not even for a few feet. The mere thought of being out after dark sent her into an emotional upheaval. She was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a debilitating mental crisis that occurs after experiencing or witnessing an extremely traumatic, tragic, or terrifying event. People with PTSD usually have persistent frightening thoughts and memories of their ordeal and feel emotionally impaired.
Ms. Jones’ emotional impairment is similar to that which happens to military veterans who have been subjected to life-threatening situations in combat. Once referred to as “shell shock” or battle fatigue, PTSD was first brought to public attention by war veterans, but soon was recognized as a condition that can result from a number of traumatic incidents. Most people with PTSD re-live the trauma in the form of nightmares and disturbing recollections during the daytime. These mental reruns may not appear for weeks at a time, only to reoccur for no apparent reason. Perhaps a sight or sound that connects on a subconscious level will trigger the fear and anxiety that brought on the original trauma. The person may experience depression, problems sleeping, a detached feeling of numbness, or a condition of being easily startled. Additionally, they may lose interest in things they used to enjoy and have trouble feeling affectionate. They may feel irritable, more aggressive than before, or even violent. Seeing things that remind them of the incident may be very distressing, which could lead them to avoid certain places or situations that bring back those memories.
What happens to our combat veterans when they come home with war-related injuries? First, we must separate physical injuries from those that can’t be observed by a surgeon. For this follow-up article to the recent one entitled “PTSD – The invisible casualties of war,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Colonel Keith Simonson and Captain Norma Cabanas. Colonel Simonson talked about experiences in Iraq when mortar shells were exploding nearby. The fact is, while in a combat zone, soldiers often deal with terrifying experiences that may appear to be over after returning home. Yet, many have found that those episodes of fear-inducing trauma had a lasting impact.
The colonel, who served two years in Germany, three years in Greece, and 2 ½ years in Iraq, discovered that he suffered from a form of nervous apprehension when he returned to the states. Even hearing the sudden backfire of a bus engine brought back some fearful memories of the battlefield. He was at a Rangers baseball game when a fireworks display erupted, reviving an anxiety attack. Simonson soon realized that he was dealing with PTSD. He became more concerned when he learned that one of the men formerly under his command committed suicide after returning home and unable to find a job. The man had become depressed and quietly went to a secluded location and killed himself. “Soldiers are trained to be strong and tough, therefore, they find it difficult to admit that they have emotional problems,” Simonson said. “But, those problems must be dealt with if we expect to do what’s right for those who sacrificed so much for us,” he added.
Captain Norma Cabanas served as a company commander in El Salvador and Honduras and is currently the commander of the 957th Quartermaster Company in Denton, which is responsible for the transportation of petroleum fuel for tankers, jets and other military vehicles. “Think of our operation as a big gas station on the move,” she said. “We store, treat and deliver almost anything that involves petroleum. We also have petroleum labs that test the fuel before it goes into military vehicles or aircraft. The Army purchases petroleum through the DLA (Defense Logistics Agency), which handles the mass purchasing for the areas of operations.” She also has dealt with soldiers suffering from PTSD, one of whom committed suicide. “You see someone coming back with prosthesis and the injuries are obvious. Then, you see someone coming back whole and you don’t realize the injuries are imperceptible.”
Both of these military officers agree that there is a dire need for a V.A. office in Denton. The V.A. facility in Dallas is difficult for vets because the clinics are crowed and noisy, creating a “toxic atmosphere.” Moreover, there is insufficient parking, and there are not enough personnel or space available to assist those in need. They would like a veterans’ center where mental health issues could be addressed in Denton instead of having to travel all the way into Dallas. With several thousand veterans residing in Denton County, and more returning all the time, it seems like a reasonable request. For more info on this issue: www.veteransofdentoncounty.org.
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.