Once a soldier: Living with PTSD

“Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.”

– From the novel Catch-22

Dan Overton works with military veterans for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) through the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs.

He offers a subtle but important alternative view of the condition.

“A lot of the people who work with vets — and many veterans — want to change the conversation about this form of mental illness that is PTSD to the less stigmatized name of Post Traumatic Injury,” he said. “Think about it: We all are injured from time to time. I was injured when I was rejected by my first crush. I was injured when my first dog died. We all have these injuries. In that respect, vets are no different. Their injuries, however, are more significant and unique to the military. They certainly don’t need to be labeled as mentally ill. They say, ‘Yeah I’ve got some issues but I’m not crazy.’”

Indeed, Overton noted that by developing symptoms, soldiers are reacting the way most people would to “awful” conditions.

“If every day you wake up and you know you’re going to be shot at, or attacked, that you’re going to kill someone, maybe kill an innocent, that you’re going to see dead bodies, and if that’s your day, every day, what does that do to you?”

He added that trauma doesn’t need to rise to a daily diet of violence. “It’s not usually a single event. It’s unpredictability, danger, a matter of survival.”

For Chris Todd, 76, from Shoreline, it all began decades ago as he served as an instructor and signalman in Vietnam. “It was fascinating and terrifying at the same time. My job was to repair radios and other equipment. I received and returned fire often.”

He was 27 when he got out. “I didn’t know anything about PTSD. Just drank all the time. I had no idea. For 50 years, I thought the night sweats, nightmares and myriad other symptoms happened to everybody.”

A few years ago, he found some solace by volunteering with the Joint Service Committee, which meets weekly at the Mountlake Terrace American Legion Hall. Todd and more than a dozen other volunteers from the Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Vietnam Veterans of America work in concert to assist vets. They also sponsor healing circles for talking and camaraderie, with the vast majority of their clients coming from the South Snohomish County area.

“On the committee, I help people tell their stories, which they often find very difficult,” Todd said. “They call me The Scribe.”

He also keeps an eye out for suicidal vets. “I got rid of all my guns and I advise others to do the same. If you start wondering what the world would be like without you in it, call us, or call the suicide prevention hotline. Talk to us. Talk to somebody.”

Todd added that nobody expects to be cured of PTSD but things can be better. “We wish to help them become aware that they have it and to cope.”

Also a member of the committee, Steven Warren, 32, from Lynnwood, served in the Army from 2005-2009. “I joined ignorantly, for the GI Bill. Didn’t think I’d go to war,” he said. “It wasn’t my intention to go into combat.”

But he did, serving in Iraq, first at an airfield north of Baghdad, then at Forward Operating Base Normandy near the Iran border. “I was a tactical operations specialist, tracking aircraft in the battlefield, talking with the aircraft.” As part of an interdiction team, he monitored the battlefield on large video screens inside of an operations center through a live feed from drones and helicopters equipped with video cameras.

“We saw headlights one night, a couple of people digging; we dropped a hellfire rocket on them,” Warren remembered. “They weren’t dead but pretty mangled.”

The wounded were brought back to the airfield. “My officer in command ordered me to the aircraft and get the wounded up to the aid station,” he said. “Found out they weren’t the bad guys. They were on a community watch, building defenses for their community.”

Like Todd, Warren just got on with it when he left the Army. “I thought I had it all figured out.”

But he found himself always on guard and had difficulty maintaining friendships. He tried going to college but couldn’t concentrate. After a few brushes with the law, he went to the VA and got a diagnosis of PTSD, something he’s not entirely comfortable with.

“It’s a label,” Warren said. “I go to the VA off and on for treatment. I do need to find a way to manage it though. It’s my responsibility to get help.”

He’s planning a return to college this fall with the goal of taking acting classes.

“When a person reaches that place when he or she is ready, my advice is to try different approaches,” said Dan Overton. “Shop around. If one doesn’t feel right, try another. There are so many ways to get help now. It takes time and determination but when they come out the other side, they tend to do well. I tell veterans, it’s not about being ‘normal,’ about how to fit in. It’s about where you fit.”

Resources:

Joint Service Committee: 425-776-5490.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255. 

Edmonds Community College Veterans Resource Center: 425-640-1175.

— By Connie McDougall

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