Yes, PTSD is Scary

Part 3

Tomah, Wisconsin

by James Glaser
March 15, 2007

The Tomah VA Medical Center sits on 173 acres in west central Wisconsin. The PTSD unit there was about 300 miles from my home, and it was a long trip driving down there thinking hard all the way if this was the right thing for me or not. After having spent a year talking to Dr. Russell, at the Minneapolis PTSD Clinic, I was ready to get whatever help the VA had to offer. But I kept remembering how everyone was talking about how hard these VA programs were, and how getting everything I had hidden from myself out in the open would make things worse for a while.

They were right, because throughout the visits with Dr. Russell things did grow progressively worse for me. At the start of all of this, I would schedule my appointment for early afternoon at the Minneapolis VA Clinic. It was a five hour drive down, and I could leave at first light and be back that same night. After a while, I noticed that I would get more tense the closer I got to the VA. Another thing, when driving down Highway 46 toward Minneapolis, the sun would be coming up on my left, and the flashes of sunlight through the trees would put me right back in the Nam. I could not figure out why those flashes of morning sun light did that to me, but it would freak me out so badly that I had to change my appointment time to early morning. That way I could leave for the VA at Midnight, and get away from the flashing sunlight.

I now know that things do get worse when you start dealing with your PTSD, because for so long you tried to stuff everything about the war into the back of your mind. What you didn't realize is that the things that were coming out and bothering you were just the tip of the iceberg. You might have a couple things that were always setting you off, like the sound of a helicopter, or like for some guys, the smell of diesel fuel. Those "triggers" would start you thinking of your war time experiences. For a while you learned how to stop those thoughts. Like I said, some guys used alcohol or drugs, others dove into their work, whatever it took to take your mind off the things you didn't want to think about is what you would do.

For some, that diversion technique works for decades, and for others it works for a few years. Either way, the time comes when nothing works any more, and you either get some help, or you do yourself in. When you start dealing with these thoughts of your war, then everything starts coming back to you.

Many veterans find that their time in the war was just a time in their life, like high school or college. After it was over, it just became a memory. For others, their time in the war zone becomes the most vivid thought in their life. I don't know why one guy can walk away and the other can't. I have met veterans who have become the president of a successful corporation, and one day their war experience jumps out of the back of their mind and takes over their life.

Some guys have scars on their bodies from battle wounds that remind them of combat every day. I met a Korean vet there who had been shot in the face, and let me tell you he looked just awful. I asked him if he had ever tried living out in the community, and he said that he had, but the looks of little children bummed him out too much.

They can do a lot with plastic surgery, but after years of multiple surgeries, some guys don't want the pain for the little gain they get. Like this guy said, to reconstruct a face, you first have to have a face to work with. So he lived at the VA Hospital, and I would guess he will die at the VA Hospital.

Others have no apparent visual reminder, but they are affected by their time in combat too. I met a guy at Tomah, who was wounded at Iwo Jima in WW II. He was still in that VA hospital 50 years later. He told me he was better, but he explained that all the time we were talking, he could hear his fellow wounded Marines screaming as they waited in horrible pain to be taken off the island. The sounds of those wounded Marines stayed with that guy 24/7. To him these were not "voices in his head," but the sounds were so real that he actually could hear those screaming dying Marines.

You read about Iraqi and Afghan vets needing psychological help after their return home, but they never explain what that help entails. A young man or women needing help with their war experiences and the stress those experiences can cause, will spend years, decades, maybe the rest of their lives trying to get back to "normal.'

I know I was going to write about the PTSD Program at Tomah, but I got off on this tangent, and will have to get back to Tomah tomorrow. I could try and blame that on having PTSD, but I know too many people who have never been to war, who have trouble with their minds wandering for me to get away with that excuse.

Maybe I just don't want to think about my program there at the VA. It wasn't fun, it was hard work. Something most people don't know is that the program is free, provided by our government to help veterans who have served in a war and because of that service, they are having problems. The program is free, but that is it. You don't get any money to live on, you don't get any money to travel on, and your family has to get by while you are away.

To say the least, you have to really need the help in order for you and your family to put your and their lives on hold while you try and get yourself back together. A lot of guys start, and a lot of guys quit. Some find it easier to go back to the bottle or return to being a workaholic. Others decide it is easier to take their life and end the torment the war zone has placed on them.

Tomorrow I'll tell you about the PTSD Program at Tomah VA Medical Center.

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