One vet’s tales of combat, PTSD, and the only thing that has helped –her dog.
By Kim Mitchell
Nurses are taught to ask open-ended questions. This is how I get my patients to tell me what is wrong or bothering them. I can’t use this technique with my own sister. My sister, Staff Sergeant Austin, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
What is PTSD?
PTSD is a mental health problem that can occur after a traumatic event like combat, assault, or disaster. Not everyone in the military gets PTSD but those that do have various symptoms from upsetting memories, increased jumpiness, or trouble sleeping that does not go away or get worse with time.
There is no cure for PTSD. Treatment generally consists of therapy and medications. Veterans are taught how to cope with emotional conflicts, identify triggers, and increase their self-esteem.
Combat veterans receive free therapy through the Veteran’s Administration. According to Austin, the problem with these options is that it is only offered through the VA. “It’s bullshit because they don’t know what I’ve been through. They haven’t experienced the horrors of combat. They want me to just start talking. It’s not that easy. There has to be trust,” Austin said
Austin is a member of the National Guard and a combat veteran. She served in the U.S. Air Force for one enlistment following high school graduation. She was the military equivalent of an air traffic controller.
She had always longed to fly. She had the opportunity 15 years ago to join the National Guard and learn how to repair helicopters. Austin has worked on Black Hawks, Apaches, Chinooks, and Light Utility helicopters. She loves her career and is currently a flight engineer. Austin is responsible for ensuring that all components of the helicopter are in proper working order.
Austin served two tours in Afghanistan and Iraq as a flight engineer. She has delivered troops and supplies and has recovered bodies. Austin says that when her crew recovered bodies, they were in black, zipped bags that often contained mixed body parts that were to be separated once back in the States. She has talked about the canines (dogs that are used to sniff and detect bombs) and their handlers. She has
seen them blown-up. Austin has had to fire the gunner (a large gun that is mounted on the helicopter) on missions as her helicopter was receiving fire. She said she probably has killed people. She has told stories of how awful the smell is over there because everything is burned in great big pits.
PTSD in action
“Don’t sneak up on me or you might get punched,” Austin said.
Being back in the United States, Austin can’t stand to be in crowded or noisy places. She always sits with her back to the wall. She doesn’t know what might be lurking in the dark.
For example, when a cannon went off at the Renaissance Festival, she immediately crouched and was prepared to lay flat on the ground to take cover. She finds it difficult to be around people draped in scarves because it reminds her of Afghanistan and Iraq. Certain smells will conjure memories. She awakes in the night and doesn’t know where she is. She sometimes will go into a rage and doesn’t know why.
Leave me alone
She is one of many veterans that prefer to deal with their stress on their own. If you know a Vietnam veteran or a veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom or Operation Iraqi Freedom, you know that they will not talk about their experiences. They won’t even talk about it with each other.
Austin said that she wishes for a “magic wand to wave over my head and just take the memories away.” She can’t participate in group therapy because she is too violent.
“I feel homicidal towards the whiney pencil pushers who cry ‘whoa is me.’ They haven’t seen people blown up or had to hurriedly retrieve body bags while being fired upon, or had to man a gunner and return fire,” Austin said.
Austin does take medications to help her sleep at night. Even with those, she said she can only sleep in small spurts and often awakes in the night sweating and confused.
The one thing that helps her cope is her four-legged baby, Dewey. Dewey is a short-legged Jack Russell dog and a registered PTSD companion. When Austin talks in her sleep or awakes in a state of panic, he nudges her or licks her face or snuggles up against her. He is letting her know that she is home in her bed and she is alright. When she gets angry or upset, Dewey jumps up on her for her to pick him up. Austin picks him up and he snuggles right against her neck. It forces her to pay attention to him, thereby, distracting her from whatever caused her to become upset. According to Austin, PTSD companions are not covered or reimbursed by the VA.
Even with Dewey, Austin struggles with feelings of suicide. Austin talks with her mother when she has thoughts of suicide and this helps. Austin has a symbiotic relationship with her mother. Austin’s mother has lost interest in life after her husband died. Together, they keep each other company and provide support.
Depression in veterans can end in suicide. It is most likely to occur during the first three years of returning from combat. It’s unclear as to why some veterans commit suicide while others appear to adjust and transition back into their previous lives.
Austin doesn’t know what might set her off or when so she tends to avoid highly populated places. She doesn’t like being this way. She fights the urge to drink every day.
Alcohol is a form of escape and numbs the individual to the event or situation. It isn’t hard to find an article about veterans and alcohol abuse.
It is clear that even though we’ve come a long way from spitting and calling names at returning veterans, as we did to those returning from Vietnam, but we still have a long way to go in caring for our soldiers when they return home.