Wasco County Veteran Service Officer Russell Jones said June has been designated as National PTSD Awareness Month to focus attention on the psychiatric effects of trauma.
The intense anxiety of post-traumatic stress disorder can affect any person who experiences helplessness, intense fear or horror from some life event. In the military, the numbers are especially high due to the extreme danger of combat.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that about 30 percent of the men and women who have spent time in war zones experience PTSD. An additional 20-25 percent have some type of serious stress reaction symptoms.
“There is a real self-medication (alcohol and drugs) issue among veterans who don’t get treatment,” said Jones.
People suffering from PTSD may become emotionally numb and have difficulty maintaining close relationships. They often lose interest in the hobbies and activities they once enjoyed. Many veterans return from deployment and startle easily or become irritable and even aggressive. They can be jittery and haunted by nightmares and have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep.
There can be symptoms of elevated blood pressure, difficulty breathing, an increased heart rate and chest pain. Other physical signs include bowel disorders, headaches, weakness and muscle tension or twitches.
“The symptoms can be overwhelming if you don’t have some coping mechanisms,” said Jones. “The problems get worse if the veteran also suffers from traumatic brain injury [TBI].”
TBI most often occurs in a war zone when an explosion takes place and the brain of the warrior is slammed inside his or her skull by a shock wave, which results in swelling and bruising. It can take years or decades for these injuries to heal. They can result in emotional instability, cognitive memory loss and other symptoms that mirror PTSD.
Jones, who is a Navy veteran, said the VA recognizes three types of PTSD:
• The veteran was in a combat situation where he or she saw people killed or had to take lives to save their own.
• The veteran was at risk in a hostile environment where he or she thought they might not survive, even if not on the front lines.
• Sexual trauma in the form of a direct assault occurred at some point in the person’s service career.
“Combat PTSD is the easiest to prove because medals and related awards make it easier to file a claim,” said Jones. “When these are not available, the veteran has to provide a statement about the incident and the effects of the trauma, which in itself can be traumatizing because they have to relive it.”
He currently has five claims awaiting decisions on behalf of area veterans who were sexually assaulted and a significant number of PTSD claims overall. Jones said there would be even more, but many soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are embarrassed to ask for help or feel their case will be lost in a monolithic bureaucracy.
“I remind veterans that I work for them, for Wasco County, and not the VA,” said Jones. “Forty percent of veterans have some kind of mental health issue but many of them don’t want to be labeled as ‘disabled’ so they refuse the treatment and compensation they deserve.”
He said another fear driving many veterans is that their gun rights will be taken away if they admit to having psychological problems. If the VA finds that someone is incompetent of managing their own financial affairs, among other things, they lose the right to own a firearm.
“There is a very high threshold for declaring someone incompetent, so it is something that doesn’t happen very often and we are here to fight for the veteran if it does,” said Jones.
He said with treatment a veteran can learn to manage trauma in positive ways that lead to a meaningful and productive life. He said friends and family, as well as community members, can provide the veteran with support by exhibiting understanding, patience and encouragement.
“It takes time to work through this trauma and the best thing people can do is let the veteran know they care and look for ways to show that,” said Jones.